It only took one vegetarian to convince Nana chef Anthony Bombaci to draw up a meat-free tasting menu.
"They made reservations, they told us they were vegetarian and they paid for their food," Bombaci recalls. "And we served them meat." After their visit to Nana, Bombaci got a letter--"snail mail, not e-mail"--from one of the guests telling him how disappointed she was at the lack of vegetarian options on the menu. Then and there, he decided to create a menu that would not only accommodate vegetarians and vegans, but would keep them fed in a style on par with the rest of Nana's guests.
Here's how it works: There are two tasting menus--a vegan and an ovo-lacto (egg and dairy) vegetaria--each with seven to 10 small-plate courses and accompanying wine pairings. Prices range from $85 to $145 per person, depending on how many courses you order and whether you want wine. But the vegetarian tasting menus don't come out automatically, so be sure to ask for them when you go.
My date for this tasting adventure was my mother, who though also a vegan was relatively easy to cajole into trying the ovo-lacto menu, once she understood that thorough accounting of both was in the interest of all non-meat-eaters. We sat looking out over the skyline of downtown Dallas, which under a full moon and from behind the 27th-floor windows of the Hilton Anatole looks pretty sweet. After ordering wine and cocktails and chatting with Wine Steward Russell Burkett (who may know even more about wine than Jim Schutze knows about the Trinity River project), we were served a lovely teaser of an appetizer: Tiny microgreens, a few slices of coriander-marinated carrot and a paper-thin curl of cippolini were arranged artfully over a creamy, impeccably spiced bright-green avocado paste.
Most of the vegan and ovo-lacto courses were quite similar, but with added cheese or creamier sauces on the ovo-lacto side. Yet instead of leaving vegans with minimalist options by creating dishes then subtracting the eggs or cream, Bombaci has clearly put a lot of thought into crafting stand-alone vegan dishes that, in the absence of the usual animal-based staples, are complex, creative and thoughtfully varied.
Herewith, the ratings:
Best Overall: Vinegar Marinated Strawberries
As desserts go, this one is girly. Really girly. A wide bowl of ripe, perfectly marinated strawberries, a glass of bright-pink and candy-sweet Rosa Regale in a cordial glass, and a little crimson swipe of liquid licorice? You can't get more girly than that. It makes me glad to be one (and extremely glad that I wasn't wearing white).
Most Imaginative: Cucumber Spaghetti
It's not the concept of making little spaghetti coils out of cucumbers that surprised us so much as their dish-fellows: pistachios and sesame seeds for a nice crunch, delicate scallions, and "pistachio gravel"--a sweetly re-formed version of caramelized liquid pistachios, reminiscent of yogurt-covered raisins without the yogurt (or the raisins, for that matter). An Alsatian Gewurztraminer was a nice touch, too.
Best Comfort Food: Tempura Pencil Asparagus
The fried asparagus was perfect--crunchy, delicate, just a tiny bit sinful--and its accompanying "liquid fried onion praline" was indescribably good. A refreshing Chenin Blanc made for a great pairing.
Worst Course: Carrot Marmalade
The vegan version of the fifth course, a bland pile of shredded carrots topped with passion fruit granite and peanuts, was passable; the ovo-lacto was utterly disappointing. First, it was served sans granite, which was the best part of the course. In its place were four large chunks of cheese (Manchego and Idiazabal) slapped thoughtlessly atop the carrot pile. Shaved cheese would have been more subtle and digestible, but in general, this course was unexceptional, and we could have done without it altogether.
Since everything on the tasting menu is served à la carte, you can substitute for courses that aren't on the seven-deep list. I suggest replacing this one with the liquid baked potato if you crave another savory course (we did) or the light-and-airy Ruby Red grapefruit if you're in the mood for a palate cleanser.
Penne Pasta: The first course on the vegan menu--spinach penne, avocadoes, and a sublimely spiced mojo verde--is divine, with a surprising but refreshing champagne pairing. Ovo-lactos get hand-rolled garlic-basil pappardelle stuffed with ricotta and parmesan. I hear it's to die for.
Although death by pasta is not the chef's purpose.
Grilled Leeks: A thoughtful combination in the roasted root veggies tradition, the highlight of this plate is the impossibly creamy Romesco sauce. A subtly oaky Pinot Noir is a nice complement.
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After nearly four hours of wining and dining, a final extra course came: tiny bubble-glasses half-filled with a bright, liquid strawberry consommé garnished with one raspberry and one blueberry. Whether it's evidence of too much wine, too much food, or a simple loss of words, my only notes from that dish read: "Oh it's delicious."
I guess that pretty much sums it up.
Oh, and a teaser: If the whole tasting menu seems like a bit much, The Bar at Nana offers "Friday Night Flights," a $20 wine and food tasting on the first Friday of each month. Next one is May 1; no word on how veg-friendly the food is, though. But we know the chef listens to complaints.
Hilton Anatole, 27th Floor
2201 Stemmons Freeway
Reserve online or call 214.761.7470