Thursday, May 3, 2012

Come on to My House, Cafe My House

I consider myself to be somewhat of a Renaissance burgeratus, an open-minded omnivore looking to any form of protein, fruit or vegetable to form me a patty that may be consumed burgeresque. Orthodox carnivores may scoff at my ideology, but I say to them: cannot the simple soybean be magically transformed into cakes of firm, moist protein? Can this cake not be cooked well?

The simple truth is this: most veggie burgers are as boring and bland as most meat burgers. Most restaurants that carry veggie burgers don't make it themselves and serve you frozen boxed stuff of middling quality. A good veggie burger is not easy to make because while good meat stands on its own, veggie burgers need extra prep and coaxing to become something above the ordinary. Coupled with the fact that vegetarians are ultimately a minority and you can see why most pub cooks serve up the frozen stuff. As a result, one of my missions with the blog was to highlight some of the best veggie burgers. As it happens I found one in Ottawa.

I don't think that many Ottawans would expect that Bank St. south near Alta Vista would be the home of one of the city's finest vegan eateries, but lo, Cafe My House (1729 Bank) is comfortably nestled in the land of strip malls and Middle Eastern bakeries. This neighbourhood is where urban design went to die, a shadowy world of anti-retail where the road is elevated above the outlets so as to try and make you forget them, and drivers are coaxed into believing that the strip of road is actually a highway, so when you stop and turn into a parking lot the guy behind you slams on his brakes.

I put up with this schlock of urbanity to try Cafe My House's vegan tempeh cheeseburger (VTC), owner Briana Kim's killer app to get avowed meatatarians to try something sans death for once. She is a delightful woman completely committed to offering her oft repeat customers a fresh, healthy and complete vegan culinary experience regardless of what kind of -vore they are. Wanting to get a vegan burger up on the blog sooner than later, I headed out for a quick business lunch to grab a VTC to go, but not before having a chat with Briana about what goes into the perfect veggie burger.

Turns out, it's a lot. An incredible amount of thought has gone into the flavour and texture profile of this burger, enough to rival some of Ottawa's top tier. Will a bright light out of retail Mordor emerge as one of Mike Likes Burgers' top picks?

Keep reading after the break to find out.

The burger

The patty is a grilled, inch-thick slab of marinated tempeh with crushed, toasted cashews mixed in. It has a firm, meaty texture reminiscent of very soft chicken (sorry vegans, have to compare!) without any residual flavourless liquid that terrifies ominovores that have eaten poorly-made tofu. It takes an hours-long bath in a marinade of orange, leek, sweet onion, tamari, kelp and other flavours I won't give away. While salt is the predominant flavour of the marinade it is well balanced by the sweetness of the grilled onion medley. The flavours are harmonious and are obviously the product of hundreds of iterations to reach this level of balance. What impressed me was despite all of the other flavours of the burger, the patty stood out as the focal point.

A peek of the patty underneath the gravy.
Braised kale is a lovely, healthy topping that is piled on in good quantity, offering a soft, rich texture and adding a vivid green to an otherwise pretty brown burger. Unfortunately it's tucked under the patty does not reach its fullest visual impact. Shittake mushrooms top it off, grilled tender and full of flavour. The tomato is lost amidst the torrential flavours of its neighbours on all accounts and can be forgotten.

As you can see from the pictures, the VTC is generously smothered in brown rice miso gravy. I enjoy miso gravies despite their tendency to be heavily salty, but not in this case. The gravy is well-balanced, rich and silky in texture but still allows the palate to identify the other parts of the burger. A big plus for take-out: unlike meat gravy does not congeal as it cools, so it's not a globulous ugly mess when you get back to the office. Also it is not as runny as one would expect, so you don't end up losing half of it to the post-consumer recycled paper take-out container.
A cascade of Daiya and miso gravy; surprisingly not as runny as it looks.

Atop the gravy is a generous helping of Daiya cheddar, a vegan cheese made from basically the entire cuisine of the Caribbean. It's a peculiar but tasty mix of cassava, arrowroot, yeast, pea protein, annatto and other wonderful ingredients. Daiya is taking the vegan world by storm as it has a vastly better taste and texture than its competitors. While certainly not having the acidic complexity of a well-made aged cheddar, it is a suitable substitute and does provide enough salt and sharpness to convince your palate that it's cheese-esque. I laud Daiya for its achievement. It does prove the old adage of "better living through chemistry."

The bun is a significant, flavourful whole wheat and multi-seed bread bun. It wasn't the freshest bun I've had and provided unnecessary resistance to chew, but it does a satisfactory job of absorbing the significant moisture. You'll still want a paper towel in hand though. The burger has great bun/tempeh/topping ratio.

The bun looked healthier than a gymnast in a juice bar.
Overall, the burger was a sumptuous experience that left me full and happy, and without any lethargy resulting from the sizeable meal. For $14.95 after tax it was excellent value. Taken individually nothing in the burger was expensive, but the value is achieved given the amount of thought and work needed to execute the recipe. I give Briana and the staff of Cafe My House enormous kudos for casting aside the average and shooting for the magnificent.

The only thing keeping this burger from complete vegan perfection is texture. Each bite is earthy, salty and umami, but I feel it would benefit hugely from some crunch or crispiness. I fixed that though (see below).

I expect to like this burger, but I didn't expect that I would like it as much as I did. So please go. I don't care if your thought of dinner is three different meats; you can close your eyes and pretend that tempeh comes from the meat of a rare Indonesian ahool. Brave Bank St. South and its stupidity for this. It is so worth it. It's in my top three so far, and easily the best veggie burger I have ever eaten.

The sides

The burger came with a side of vegan slaw, which is like any other slaw but with a little (too little) vegan dressing. On its own it was kind of meh; a reasonable selection of shredded fresh veggies but with an overwhelming amount of dill. Where it shone was actually with the burger. I eventually "fixed" my few issues with the burger by just dumping the slaw on the patty.


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