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Regular readers of this space know that my territory is roadside taco trucks, fluorescent-lit noodle shops, and little mom-and-pop ethnic restaurants. Celebrity chefs? Subdued lighting? Shirt and shoes required? That's Shepherd's turf.
Which doesn't mean I don't go out for a nice meal sometimes. As a matter of fact, just recently, I've been to the newly reopened haute-vegan hot spot Sublime (1431 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale, 954-539-9000), and some time ago, a friend and I went for lunch at the acclaimed Johnny V's on Las Olas.
I had the meatloaf.
1431 N. Federal Highway
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33304
Region: Fort Lauderdale
Think about meatloaf, the most basic comfort food: ground meat, an egg, canned bread crumbs, and something wet to stretch and season it. My mom uses ketchup. For others, it's cream-of-mushroom soup. Many classic recipes suggest laying strips of bacon on top. Whatever you do, it probably takes less than five minutes from shrink-wrapped meat to a pan in the oven.
Meatloaf is forgiving. Whether you take it out five minutes too soon or 20 minutes too late, you end up with pretty much the same thing, nothing a little gravy or more of that ketchup can't fix.
But what if you leave out the meat entirely, as well as the egg that binds it together?
"Sublime Loaf" attempts just that. The new recipe, part of a revamped menu, is built around soy protein, vegetables, and herbs and manages to evoke the textures of meatloaf and even that mellow but rich flavor gestalt. The thick-cut slab is fluffy, moist, and crumbly on the inside and crusty and a bit charred on the outside. The mushroom gravy behaved like gravy should, and the mashed potatoes had the reassuring tang of butterfat and sour cream while of course containing neither.
Paradoxically, working under none of the constraints Sublime's veganism dictates, Chef Johnny Vinczencz accomplishes less with more.
At Johnny V's (625 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-761-7920), the lunch menu features dishes that gently reference more ambitious items on the dinner menu. Corn-crusted snapper may show up tweaked as a fish taco. The ancho-cinnamon pork tenderloin might be alluded to by a lunchtime ancho-cinnamon pulled-pork sandwich, and standing in for "Duck Duck Duck" ($29) of seared duck breast, duck leg confit, and foie gras on this springtime visit was "Duck Breast 'Meat Loaf' with Smoked Apple Bacon" ($13). Garlic mashed potatoes too? I'm in.
Alas, though what arrived was pleasant enough, it wasn't meatloaf. Duck is an especially fatty and delicate meat. Grinding it and mixing it with meatloaf binders and filler eggs, bread crumbs, and shallots only further added to a supersmooth, texture, far from the crumbly fluffiness of meatloaf. Whether you call it silky or gelatinous depends on what comes to mind first: foie gras or chicken roll. The garlic mashed potatoes hit the mark, but the drizzle of a thick reduction was too subdued and refined to stand in for gravy, much less for ketchup, which as we know, can liven up even the most unlively of meatloaves. The result didn't evoke meatloaf, nor, after all that manipulation, did it really evoke duck.
Maybe the challenge of creating a "meatloaf" out of virtually nothing that goes into meatloaf spurred Sublime's chefs to think harder about what makes meatloaf meatloaf. Maybe having the usual accouterments of animal flesh and eggs was a disadvantage for Johnny V because it didn't stimulate enough thinking outside the pan.
Or maybe I should leave meatloaf to moms and country diners.