Cari Taylor-Carlson

Celesta Is a Vegan Revelation

All plant based food, all delicious and quite inventive at Lower East Side cafe.

By - Apr 15th, 2019 03:37 pm
Celesta. Photo by Cari Taylor-Carlson.

Celesta. Photo by Cari Taylor-Carlson.

Celesta has a menu that spans the globe from Southern Mac’n’Cheese to Italian-style lasagna to Middle Eastern Roasted Za’Atar Cauliflower, and it’s all done with plant-based ingredients. This is not a vegetarian restaurant, it’s vegan, as nothing on the menu has a connection to any animal product — ruling out honey, milk, dairy, and eggs. As friends and I would discover, the possibilities for unique dishes in a plant-based restaurant are plentiful, diverse, and delightful.

This is not food based on Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet from the ‘70s, it’s creative, inventive, delicious, and full of surprises. Chef-owner Melanie Manuel works her magic in the alchemy she uses to transform ordinary ingredients into dishes that transcend their roots.

Each entrée we sampled on two visits was indeed a celebration of flavors. Many of these tasty dishes incorporated seitan or tempeh, and like tofu, both have absorbent qualities that let them soak up flavors making them tasty sources of protein for a vegan diet. From our server we learned seitan is made from wheat gluten, while tempeh is a soy product.

We first encountered seitan at Sunday brunch in the Irish Skillet, a daily special offered on St. Patrick’s Day. Potatoes and cabbage were layered with a “cheese” sauce, then topped with rosemary seitan sausage. How many superlatives can I fit into one sentence to describe that sausage with its meat-like texture? It excelled in sausage flavor and chewed like meat in the mouth.

The cheese sauce, made with vegan butter, flour, nutritional yeast, and almond milk, almost fooled us into thinking it was made with a mild cheddar. The sauce bonded the potatoes and cabbage, making it a memorable brunch entrée.

Also, at brunch, the Southwest Grit Bowl, had a choice of that same sausage or smoky tempeh. The bowl of grits came topped with caramelized onions, chopped tomatoes, corn, tempeh, and more of that cheese sauce. The toppings livened the bland grits which tasted like Cream of Wheat from my childhood. The tempeh left no doubt about its recent exposure to smoke, subtle but present.

Lightly sautéed kale dominated the Tofu Benedict, an English muffin with mushrooms and a lemony hollandaise sauce. The side of home fries, crisp on the outside, soft inside, perfectly done, came with an ordinary dish of Ketchup, which looked incongruous next to the bright green healthful kale.

We polished off brunch with a shared S’Mores Bar, a cookie crust topped with chocolate ganache flecked with pieces of chocolate and of course, gooey toasted marshmallows.

The level of perfection at a subsequent lunch came close to equaling brunch with a couple of minor exceptions. The Arancini was disappointing, not because the crisp risotto wasn’t delicious, but because of the ratio of sauce to the arancini. There was too much sauce for two rice balls. We wanted more balls, less sauce. There was the same issue with the Roasted Roots Salad. The miso-glazed vegetables, sunflower seeds, arugula, and smoked tempeh, made a nice salad, but there were scant roasted roots which should have been the stars of the bowl. That said, those few roasted roots were delicious.

The Balanced Bowl left no doubt about its healthy ingredients. This bowl started with quinoa, a gluten-free grain, and included squash and toasted almonds in a sweet dressing.

The biggest surprise at lunch was the Ramen, a sunflower seed broth filled with noodles, bok choy, shitake mushrooms, tofu, and togarashi, a blend of spicy flavors popular in Japan. The togarashi added the right note of heat to the broth, which left a pleasant mild burn in the mouth.

From beverages you can order a House Cocktail, a beer, or a glass of wine from an abbreviated wine list. Or, you can step back in time and enjoy a glass of Abu’s Rosewater Lemonade. I should note that Celesta occupies the space that was formerly Jownai Fouquet and for many years before that, Abu’s Jerusalem of the Gold. The lemonade is the real deal. A member of Abu’s family brings the rosewater mix; at Celesta they add water, and voila, you have Abu’s lemonade. We found it refreshing, piquant, with a slight floral taste.

I left the best for last because you do not want to dine at Celesta and overlook the Roasted Za’Atar Cauliflower. It’s a plate full of roasted cauliflower, briny capers, sweet golden raisins, and crunchy toasted almonds dressed with tahini sauce. Bits of mint and sprigs of dill add a fresh pop, making this a shareable too delectable to actually share.

You might want to reserve a table at Celesta, especially if you come for Sunday brunch as there are only seven tables and six seats at the bar.

This is a great addition to the Lower East Side neighborhood. No matter what you order here, you won’t be disappointed, and I can almost guarantee, you will be surprised.

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