By Marisa Marsey
Maybe it was the movie Babe. Or passing a truck crammed with chickens en route to the processing plant, feathers drifting onto your windshield like fresh-fallen snow. Even the most diehard carnivore may be prompted to forgo flesh from time to time, though a big, thick, juicy burger can quickly quash such flirtations. But on a recent Friday night at Todd Jurich’s Bistro, a first-class “Animal-Friendly Gastronomic Delight” to raise funds for the Norfolk SPCA could have made any ready-to-pounce leopard change its spots.
“Do we have any vegans in the group?” chef-owner Jurich conducts a quick census of how many guests eschew all animal-derived products at the festivities’ start. Only one woman raises her hand, qualifying it with, “Sort of.” This is a pet-loving group who shares the SPCA’s vision of saving healthy and treatable companion animals but, like most Hampton Roads foodies, typically pushes the revolving door into his top-rated downtown Norfolk restaurant to indulge in Eastern Shore oyster stew, roast rack of lamb, rib eye, and “a really good meatloaf.” And while Jurich conscientiously sources from producers who practice natural and ecologically sound agriculture, this four-course beast-less feast demonstrated the giddy heights to which by-the-book vegan can ascend, made even more dizzying for the global spin he gave it.
The capsaicin bite and fiesta colors of Mexican cuisine trumpeted themselves in blackened portobello mushroom “steak” rounded out with red beans and rice, pico de gallo, mole, and a smoky chipotle guacamole. Thai’s interplay of sweet and heat reverberated in cilantro-and-lime accented spicy green papaya salad embroidered with bean thread noodles, birds-eye chilies, and, for a local touch, Hubs peanuts.
Unleashing still more worldly flavors in family-style platters of roasted elephant garlic bruschetta with fleur de sel and truffle olive oil, Jurich acknowledges, “It was a challenge for us in the kitchen, but we can all feel better that we’re eating a little healthier and did something good for the animals.” To dress grilled asparagus and cumin blistered grape tomatoes, he devised a “faux béarnaise;” olive oil giving the sauce suppleness and a deep rich taste. When a server starts clearing it for the next wave of dishes, my tablemates and I yelp. Irresistibly delicious, we want to keep it as a perennial condiment like salsa south of the border.
Between courses, Rob Blizard, Norfolk SPCA’s executive director, urges, “Come see us to volunteer, folks, and adopt.” He masterminded the evening’s theme, inspired by his tenure at the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C., where all functions are mandated to be animal-friendly. Conversations overheard while I lap up tarragon-tinged cauliflower cous cous with smoked raisins and plump marcona almonds: “She’s our Wonder Dog. We wonder what kind of dog she is,” prove he’s preaching to a choir of rescuers. Of course, adoption might not have been referring to only cuddly critters at the limited-admissions, no-kill shelter. Perhaps it also hinted at going meatless beyond Mondays. “If we grew up eating like this, it would be easy,” Blizard saliently observes.
Jurich continued making a compelling case for bypassing the butcher with some delectable trompe l’oeil. The crispy eggplant jutting out of North Central Thai jungle curry with sticky rice resembles a chicken wing and, with its yellow color and creamy, buttery texture, ackee (known as Jamaica’s national fruit) could double for scrambled eggs.
All the dishes are revelations, and Jurich found a way to propel bean curd beyond its usual banality by smoking it for a bacon-like effect. A man who had muttered, “Oh no, tofu,” upon reading the menu earlier bestows perhaps the highest praise of the evening, begging Jurich, “Can you add this to your menu?”
It took some sleuthing for sommelier Megan Jones to pair each course with the limited number of animal-friendly wines available as labels don’t usually declare their vegan persuasion. Most winemaking utilizes egg whites or blood and bone marrow as fining agents during filtering, but a pioneering few vignerons such as Yalumba have converted to vegan-friendly practices. “I’m especially fond of them,” says Jones, sharing that Australia’s oldest family-owned winery has won international acclaim for its environmental management policies including a Climate Protection Award from the EPA. Yalumba’s “Scribbler” Cabernet/Shiraz nuzzles nicely with red quinoa and baby kale dotted with pine nuts and sour cherries. She also pours pleasantly floral Oxford Landing Viognier (part of Yalumba), crisp Kung Fu Girl Riesling (a Wine Spectator “Top 100 Wine”), and Chapoutier Luberon “La Ciboise” with its balance of spice and black fruit, all surprisingly good values despite trendsetting methods.
As guests purr contentedly over the sweet comfort of warm blackberry cobbler, Blizard invites all in attendance (including you, the reader) to the grand opening of Happy Paws, a non-profit education and training center designed to strengthen the bond between companion animals and their families, on May 27 at 11 a.m. (5660 Indian River Rd., Suite 118, Va. Beach, 963-8661, HappyPawsTraining.org – and yes, there will be treats!). It’s a cross-border collaboration of the Norfolk SPCA, Chesapeake Humane Society, and Virginia Beach SPCA, underscoring that animals can bring our cities to the table to harness the power of regionalism. How civilized.
Got restaurant, food or beverage news? Contact Marisa Marsey at email@example.com