COCONUTS HOTSPOT — While vegetarians are something like a punchline in the culinary world, you have to hand it to chefs and kitchens that are able to produce food even carnivores like, enjoy, and keep returning to. They’re able to make it work, and more importantly, make it good even without the meat and even on a very limited list of ingredients.
“Vegetarian, not vegetarian. What matters, really, if the food is good,” says Tita Soliongco of The Vegetarian Kitchen (TVK). What started as an act of love—Tita converted to Hare Krishna and became vegetarian after meeting her husband, who was Hare Krishna—blossomed into a longstanding business, already on its third incarnation.
TVK opened in 1990 with her veggie lasagna as its item de rigeur. Because vegetarianism was hardly a movement in Metro Manila then, Tita had to close down her Sct Tuazon restaurant after a year. Back in her family’s kitchen, she continued to cook, making vegetarian versions of her favorite childhood dishes. In 2012, she reopened TVK, and then closed it down again for renovation and what-have-you. Finally, it opened its doors again in August 2014 and from the looks of it, it’s here to stay.
The first thing you’ll notice is how clean TVK is. The next thing you’ll notice is how the 32-seater restaurant is so cute and charming. At the far end of the room is a wooden wall where four uniform blackboards, displaying its short menu, hang. Clean white walls on both sides are accented by homey wooden cabinets where bric-a-bracs are stored. Providing fun contrast are the rainbow-colored seats.
Mrs. Soliongco’s vision for TVK is to help those looking to transition to a more plant-based diet. So it’s still the same dishes you know and love, except there’s no meat—fish, eggs, garlic, and onion, too. So she’s left to her creativity in the kitchen. She’s learned how to use spices to bring to life the often-bland ingredients. Veggie meats made with vegetable protein, gluten, or soy provide the heft often missing in vegetarian diets. “Here, we like to dispel the myth that vegetarian food is bland, or puro salad lang, or magugutom ka.”
From the looks of it, they are on point with their strategy. Food at TVK is well-prepared and well-seasoned. A plate doesn’t look or feel like it’s just at a 600-calorie count, and by the end of it, you don’t feel deprived.
While we would’ve wanted to see The Crispy Southern Fried Chicken (PHP335) laid out like poultry, we appreciate how the nugget shreds taste like chicken meat. It’s almost strange to learn that this, here, is soy, but delight takes precedence. It is served with well-seasoned country potatoes and a side of vegetables, making for a complete and colorful plate.
We don’t know how they do it, but the soy-based Grilled Salmon (PHP329) does taste like the fish. It’s made to look like a fillet of salmon but all the seasoning made it look like a burnt fillet of salmon. No matter, we enjoyed peeling the “skin”—which is seaweed, Mrs. Soliongco reveals—on the border of the “fillet” because it mimics the elasticity of real fish skin. A tad too well-seasoned, it makes perfect sense to dab some coriander pesto, and eat it with the rice, with which it comes served.
Finally, the cakes are more than noteworthy. Mrs. Soliongco’s son, Kiko, is the head baker of TVK and he indulges himself with unusual flavor pairings. That evening that Coconuts Manila came for a visit, he put out a slice of his Wasabi Cheesecake (PHP150). First, it’s amazing that the cake has no eggs in them. Second, we love how he used wasabi.
Unlike most establishments serving wasabi-infused desserts that are hideously overpowering, the wasabi in TVK’s cheesecake whispers instead of scares. It arrives at the very end of your forkful, after the creamy goodness of the dairy, after the solidity of the crust. It reaffirms the thought that with limitations, you become your most creative.
The Vegetarian Kitchen, 62B Mother Ignacia Ave, Quezon City; +63 2 3555622. Tue-Sat 11am-9pm.