Plant-Based Cuisine Pops Up; Young’s Restaurant is a Work in Progress
One night last month, eager diners jostled for space at a hot new Lower East Side restaurant called Young’s. The frenzied chef stirred hot sauce pans while supervising the dessert prep nearby. The maitre d’ welcomed guests at the front door, answering rapid-fire questions from the waitstaff and soothing a couple who wanted a different table at the same time. Bloggers clicked their phone cameras, Tweeting and Instagramming.
All in all, it was business as usual for a wildly popular new eatery, except for one thing: the restaurant doesn’t exist–yet.
The sold-out two-night stint at The Old Bowery Station was the debut pop-up dinner from chef Jessica Young and her partner Alexander Meyers, who plan to launch a brick and mortar restaurant in the neighborhood. Like many young entrepreneurs, they identified the Lower East Side as fertile ground for new concepts, and planned a series of pop-ups to showcase their food and hone their skills.
What sets Young’s apart from most restaurants trial-marketing themselves in the neighborhood, however, is its menu, which is entirely plant-based. Vegetables are the star of every dish: carrot spaetzle and roasted carrots, paired with harissa and black olives; mushrooms with bourbon hummus and herbs; ramps with faro, turnips and onions.
“We’re taking vegetables to the center of the plate,” Young said.
Young makes each dish from scratch, including the accompaniments. There are no “faux meat” substitutes, no processed food. The cornbread comes with a house-made spread that looks and melts like butter, but is made of olive oil and sea salt. A dessert even fooled some experienced vegan diners, who did double-takes upon being presented with banana splits with Neapolitan ice cream based on with coconut and cashew milk.
The partners are using the three-year-old Philadelphia restaurant Vedge as an inspiration, and call their approach “homey, rustic style.” They have been developing the Young’s concept for over a year, participating in Hester Street Fair events and beginning their search for a permanent space, which they hope to launch in early 2015 somewhere on the LES.
The first pop-up, in early March, served about 250 dinners over two nights. Young and Meyers learned a lot in those 48 hours, leading them to fine-tune their menu and their processes before the next one in May.
“You can talk things up as much as you want, but this was a our first opportunity to really test our concept,” Meyers said.
The pair shy away from labeling their restaurant “vegan” because it frames people’s perceptions of their food.
“Someone said to me recently, ‘Oh, your food is vegan? That’s so modern,'” Meyers said, rolling his eyes.
Beverages get just as much attention in the meal planning; each course comes paired with either a beer or a cocktail specifically chosen or created to complement what’s on the plate.
“We are ingredient-driven, and one ingredient in the food might drive the ingredients in the cocktail,” said Young, who lives on Clinton Street.
Young, who is vegan, and Meyers, who is not, both come from careers in the traditional restaurant world, and have worked in various places in the city. Young did a stint at The Modern, worked as a pastry chef and did private catering. Meyers has worked the front of the house in several establishments. He also spent some time traveling around the country helping farmers in far-flung rural areas develop marketing and distribution plans for their crops. That experience taught him to appreciate the value of produce grown in small batches. For example, he said, he ate the best mustard greens he’d ever tasted at a farm 90 miles outside of Baton Rouge, La.
“My work on farms informs our approach to food,” Meyers said. “Overall, vegetables are underappreciated as ingredients.”
Judging by the way their mailing list and social media blew up after the March event, plenty of diners think so, too.
“There are people out there who clearly want and need what we are doing,” Young said. “Our job is a whole lot easier because of that.”
Young’s next dinner series takes place at The Old Bowery Station, 10 Kenmare St., May 1, 2 and 3. It includes three courses for $40, plus an additional $12 for beer pairings or $18 for cocktail pairings. Tickets are available here.