Peas Porridge Haute
Rotting animal carcasses."
That's the second time Terry Dalton had used that phrase. Or maybe he'd said "a plate of animal carcasses" the first time; I was too busy losing my appetite to get his words down exactly. Dalton was referring to what you and I might call "a nice, juicy New York strip."
Dalton is a fervent, longtime animal-rights activist. He also owns Sublime, one of a handful of vegetarian restaurants in Fort Lauderdale and the only one featuring a "lifestyle emporium" for "compassionate shoppers," an upstairs office devoted to the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida (ARFF!), and breathtaking floor-to-ceiling waterfall windows. For almost 20 years before he opened Sublime, Dalton ran a natural foods emporium and restaurant in North Miami called Unicorn Village, a place he says sometimes served 10,000 healthful meals a week and the first natural food restaurant in Florida. When Whole Foods bought him out in 1995, he thought he'd retire on the hefty proceeds. But at the age of 57, Dalton wasn't ready to rest on his parsnips. Two years ago, with partner Nanci Alexander, he opened Sublime, donating, he says, "100 percent of our profits to support animal welfare."
Wow. He and Alexander are serious. You're not going to find any fois gras (otherwise known as "diseased liver of force-fed ducks") on Sublime's menu -- it's entirely vegan, although Dalton hates that word. He prefers to say the restaurant's offerings are "plant-based." That means no milk, eggs, cream, butter, or anything resembling an animal carcass, rotting or otherwise. He also likes to buy produce and vegetable products that have been treated better than most people treat their dear old mums -- organic rum for the mojitos, heirloom tomatoes for the salad, wines created in "biodynamic" growing conditions, in harmony with the soil and seasons. Dalton and Alexander don't seem to mind that the local vox populi isn't exactly clamoring for red lentil-quinoa loaf and barbecued seitan with plantain mash.
"Look, our demographic profile is small, but that was intentional," Dalton says. "Vegetarians are about 5 to 7 percent of the population, and true vegans are a fraction of that. We wanted to position Sublime not only to appeal overtly to vegetarians but to reach a nonvegetarian market too. We wanted people to experience the broad spectrum of vegetarian food -- it's a lot more than just tofu, beans, and rice."
Oh yes. I was thinking about the mouth-watering, four-course vegan meal that Chef Mark Militello had whipped up during a cooking demo last week at Sublime. Dalton has put together a Guest Chef Series once a month to run through November. For $75 per person, you get to watch a semifamous chef do his thing with nothing but what comes from the Kingdoms Plantae and Fungi. It's organized like an eat-along: While the chef cooks each course, explaining the process, you get to dig in to the same dish he's making, concurrently prepared in Sublime's kitchen. Each course comes with a glass of organic Bonterra wine, paired to match the food.
Militello had really outdone himself -- the next two chefs on the schedule, raw-food maven Peter Cervoni on October 6 and local vegetarian chef-author Steve Petusevsky on November 3, are going to have a tough time following his act. But Militello tends to leave his competition gasping in his dust no matter what he's cooking. His name is more or less synonymous with serious Florida food; if you haven't made the pilgrimage to Mark's Las Olas or Mark's South Beach, you need to put on those boots and start walkin'.
How Militello ever makes himself heard in the pot-banging clamor and hiss of a noisy restaurant kitchen, though, is a mystery, because the 20 or so diners assembled to watch him make veggie magic out of chanterelles and baby turnips over a single burner had to strain to catch his instructions. Militello's a slight, soft-spoken guy, his receding gray hair clipped in a brush cut. He looks a little like an unassuming Larry David. He doesn't seem to share David's id-driven desire to self-destruct socially, but he can certainly get a little testy with stupid questions. Please don't ask him about the "mango gang." Militello was once one of four young chefs known for using local ingredients and inventing a uniquely Floridian cuisine. Now it's a label he's clearly trying to distance himself from. But in foodie circles, that's a little like being an ex-Beatle.
I was sitting at a table with three ladies I didn't know -- and none of us were strict vegetarians. We were trying to follow along as Militello whispered, mumbled, and swallowed his instructions for a recipe for "mushroom and barley dumplings with soy yuzu dip" -- thank God we had eight pages of printed instructions to refer to. One of my tablemates admitted her husband did all the cooking and shopping; we joked that hubby was going to undergo the equivalent of the trials of Hercules trying to gather up the ingredients and equipment Militello had on hand that night. Like black barley. Or yuzu, a beautiful juice from the Japanese lime, the color of melted butter and exuding a scent of sour oranges. And a "Chinois" strainer shaped like an inverted dunce cap. To make these dishes at home, we were going to have to scrounge up some celeriac, baby fennel bulbs, baby turnips, English peas, and chanterelle mushrooms. We -- or our significant others -- would have to learn to clean a raw artichoke by manhandling the leaves open and hacking them off with a cleaver. We needed to find Bellino polenta and San Marzano tomatoes, whole vanilla beans, Elysium black Muscat, a clay braising pot, and Tinto Spanish cooking wine. As for the "brick," huge rounds of paper-thin Mediterranean pastry, Militello hinted that there was a Middle Eastern grocery somewhere on 441 that sold the stuff. At least, I figured, I could order the Krup's ice-cream maker from Amazon.com.
Forget about making this at home, we told each other. Let's eat!
And oh, did we ever. We had the most delicate mushroom and barley dumplings imaginable, cooked in a bamboo steamer and then given a toss in a hot pan with a dash of oil to crisp them up. With that yuzu sauce -- well worth searching high and low for, it turned out -- the dumplings were beyond delicious. By the time we'd slurped up the last of the sauce, we almost believed we could hand-crimp five- or six-dozen dumplings, just like Militello's assistant had demonstrated.
Then we had a plate of artichokes en barigoule, dressed with a reduced sauce made from a ridiculously complex homemade vegetable stock beaten with olive oil, and accompanied by caramelized wild mushrooms and all those impossible-to-find baby vegetables. The sauce/dressing on that warm salad was proof indeed that it's possible to survive, and even make a decent life, without butter. A dish of slow-braised, clay-pot white beans with rosemary and thyme followed, wearing a toupee of sautéed Swiss chard tossed in Tinto vinegar and topped with the lovely brick pastry -- an almost transparent sheet even more delicate than phyllo -- wrapped around a slowly reduced onion "jam." The final course, pickled peaches with a disk of sweet polenta mined with pistachios and a peach/ginger sorbet, was heaven. We scraped every drop of sauce from every plate, practically reduced to bending over and licking them clean, vowing that if this is what it meant to be vegetarian, we wanted in.
It turns out that you can get in on the action too. If the next chef demo is sold out or too expensive for your budget, you can still book a table and get the four courses in the main dining room for $45 per person. And I'm telling you, if the next two chefs are half the men Militello is, you've got a bargain. For this round of chef demos, the courses are paired with Bonterra organic wines from Mendocino County -- we had a chardonnay, a merlot, a cabernet, and a viognier with dessert, but Bonterra also produces, with the help of a flock of chickens (uh-huh; see their website for details), Zinfandel, Syrah, and a couple of blends -- all good. Even if you're a confirmed fois gras-slurping carnivore, Sublime's series is a great opportunity to visit a mysterious foreign country. It's a bountiful, guilt-free land whose denizens will all, no doubt, ascend unimpeded to heaven when the angels finally call them home.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to South Florida dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.