To see more photos from Darbster, click here.
Is it just me or is the world a pretty goddamned scary place to eat? We live in a country where food — especially meat — is more plentiful and widely available than it's ever been. Yet never before have we had such stigma attached to what we choose to ingest. Thanks to the Michael Pollans and Eric Schlossers out there, we know our diet of cheeseburgers and soda pop has turned our bodies (and our countryside) into little more than storage bins for processed corn. And we no longer wonder what grave consequences we'll suffer from our addiction to bacon and barbecue. It's already spelled out for us, clear as the labels on our bottles of Lipitor.
As an unapologetic meat eater myself, I know full well the wrongs of the American diet. And like most people out there, I just can't ignore the instant gratification of flesh. For me, it's the textural satisfaction meat provides — the way a sheer slice of sashimi melts into buttery richness, or the deeply pleasant rush of biting into a rare rib eye. I hate to say it, but even when faced with the obvious truth that meat is both wasteful and bad for me, indulgence wins out over logic every time.
I haven't always been this meat-obsessed. There was a time when a younger, more idyllic John used to walk around chanting Minor Threat songs, with a dog-eared copy of Diet for a New America tucked into the back pocket of his frayed jeans. I never really reconciled why I left behind the four years I spent as a vegetarian during high school and college. But I began to feel those familiar pangs again — the realization that I really could be happy with a life less meaty — during a meal at Darbster, a vegan restaurant in West Palm Beach.
This realization came while eating Darbster's version of Buffalo chicken wings ($6). The wings — fashioned out of a versatile, healthful meat alternative called Gardein — were so juicy, so texturally realistic, that had I not known they were fake, I would've been completely fooled. Even without a dip in the accompanying Buffalo and "blue cheese" sauces — both dairy-free — I thought I'd prefer these wings to the real thing. "Fake meat or not," my friend Frank said, noting how realistically the delicate batter clung to the toothsome protein, "these may be some of the best chicken wings I've ever had."
That's precisely the kind of compliment the whole faux-meat industry has been striving toward for years. Vegan foods will always be saddled with the responsibility of being compared to the meats they are intended to replace. Adding to that is the level of fervor surrounding meat these days — we live in a time when bacon is no longer just a food; it's a battle cry. To husband-and-wife team Alan Gould and Ellen Quinlan, Darbster's owners, overcoming that meaty angst is the real challenge of their sunny, outdoor restaurant, open one year this November. "This is not some crunchy granola place with just a bunch of salads and mush," says Gould. "We just want to show people that being vegan isn't a bad thing."
If any place can pull that off, it's Darbster. The restaurant is named after Gould and Quinlan's late dog Darby, and all of its profits go to an animal-rescue organization they founded, also named Darbster. How they can pull that off — especially in a fledgling restaurant — seems even more like a magic trick than making fake meat taste like the real thing. But the pair do make it work. Gould's day job is setting up retirement plans for local corporations. Darbster — the restaurant, or the foundation — isn't quite self-sustaining yet. In the meantime, the pair continues to fund both to astounding result (the foundation, for example, has rescued, spayed, or neutered some 100 cats in the past year).
Like the chicken wings, most of the mock meat and dairy dishes at Darbster are based off products that Quinlan, a lifelong vegetarian, and Gould, a vegan since 2004, have experimented with at home. What that translates to is Daiya, a vegan "cheese" made from tapioca, which, stuffed into a creamy quesadilla ($7) or a side of macaroni and cheese ($4), melts almost as convincingly as the real thing. Then, of course, there's the Gardein, which composes most of the fake meat items Darbster makes, including "steak" sliders, "chicken" kebabs, and "beef" burritos. A mixture of soy, wheat, and grain proteins, Gardein's bouncy texture and mimicked musculature is so realistic that national restaurant chains like Chipotle and Yard House have taken to serving it on their menus. One bite of a trio of chicken kebabs ($8) fashioned with the stuff and I can see why: The fleshy, sesame-studded hunks are char-grilled with onions, peppers, and pineapple. They make the dry veggie burgers of my past look like Soylent Green.
To do their work in the kitchen, Quinlan and Gould have tapped head chef Seth Kirschbaum. Kirschbaum has ping-ponged around South Florida a bit in recent years, doing short but sweet turns at Sublime and the legally embroiled organic eatery Da Francesco's in Palm Beach. But at Darbster, he seems to have finally found his home. Since he arrived in May, he's added a cavalcade of tasty items to the menu, including Darbster's take on a Reuben sandwich ($6.95) made with marinated tempeh. Kirschbaum has also fashioned a selection of half a dozen raw-food options — labor-intensive dishes that employ ingenuity and border on molecular gastronomy.
For example: How exactly does one make a raw, vegan bacon cheeseburger ($14)? Well, it is possible, if said bacon is in fact strips of eggplant marinated in such a way as to lend them bacon's taut, almost leathery quality. The burger itself is a mixture of nuts and grains that may not offer a truly meaty feel, but it does mimic the rich, earthy quality of beef. The enticing take on raw food is finished with a dehydrated bread "bun," creamy cheese sauce, and enough satisfaction to entice even a die-hard burger fanatic like my friend Joe. "It doesn't taste like a real burger, but it sure is good," he said between messy bites.
For a more familiar experience, we also tried Darbster's cheese enchiladas ($11), a huge plate of food that included rice, beans, salsa, guacamole, and a mock sour cream rich enough to top a baked potato at any fine steak house. The rich chili sauce and melted "cheese" gave the enchiladas plenty of body, but it was the satisfying crunch of the broiled tortilla that made me forget about the meat.
Just as effective: a football-sized chili relleno ($12), deep-fried and filled with more faux cheese and sautéed onions and peppers. My Darbster's chick'n ($12) was also delicious, leveraging more Gardein into cutlet-sized pieces that imitated chicken breast. The pieces had the succulence of real meat and a deeply earthy gravy made from puréed mushrooms. After I finished my chicken, I used the leftover gravy to scoop up skin-on mashed potatoes and a sauté of fresh spinach napped in garlic and olive oil. Dessert was a chocolate sundae ($10) made with coconut ice cream, plenty of fresh fruit, and enough good vibes to send us floating home on clouds.
Dishes that are meant to mimic or substitute for meats make up a substantial part of Darbster's menu. But during a lunchtime visit, I also got to experience some unabashedly veggie-based dishes. Kirschbaum's gazpacho ($3.50), for example, was refreshing and clean, especially the watermelon version I tried (flavors change daily). Not too thin or thick, the cold soup had big chunks of mango for texture and the gentle touch of cilantro and ginger to add depth. The restaurant's star dish, made out of finely shredded hearts of palm ($7.50), is less crab cake than something uniquely Florida. The inside of the cake is soft, with big chunks of sautéed vegetables and palm hearts bound together by creamy vegan mayonnaise. On a sandwich or dressed with a spoonful of pine nut aioli, it's a dish that features all of the satisfaction of meat and none of the guilt. That's a formula that both my angst-ridden teenaged self and I can get behind.