It’s rare that I leave a prix-fixe dinner wondering, “How did they do that?” But at most of the meals I eat, the chef doesn’t come out of the kitchen to explain exactly what was in each dish. That’s exactly what happened at the last Friday Night Dinner at the Natural Gourmet Institute, though, and I was left befuddled by how such simple ingredients were turned into such complex dishes. Or maybe it’s the other way around.
I was invited to dine on the house at the Natural Gourmet Institute by their marketing coordinator and, you know, immediately had my doubts about an all-vegetarian meal cooked by students. But once I saw the menu, I became a little intrigued. And then when my boyfriend and I figured out that bullet points under the appetizer, entree, and desserts sections weren’t “or”s (“pick this OR this OR this”) but “and”s (“you’re about to get this AND this AND this”), I was downright excited about getting to try all of these different tastes.
We were led to our table by a gentle, polite woman, and that was sort of the theme of the night when it came to the crowd there for the Friday Night Dinner series. Everyone was gentle and polite. A little free-spirited. Very knowledgeable about food. There to enjoy a delicious health-conscious meal and good conversation. We were seated at a communal eight-top, which shocked me a little at first, because ew, I don’t want to get to know strangers. But the couple next to us were lovely, foodies and wine lovers who were moving out west and wanted to visit one of their favorite places before they left. She was a vegan and he wasn’t, but he assured us we’d like the meal.
raw zucchini with pesto
This isn’t the first time I’ve had vegetables masquerading as pasta, and I’m a huge fan as someone who usually eats a low-carb diet. The zucchini was so fresh and crisp and light, and it was a neutral enough base that the macadamia nut(!) pesto could really shine. A leaf of Boston Bibb underneath provided a contrasting texture.
green cabbage and grapefruit terrine
It sounded like as strange a combination to me as mushroom ice cream, but the sweet and savory flavors really worked. The cabbage was mostly a textural component, so the flavor of the grapefruit really came through. The carrot coulis was lost on me, unfortunately, but I thought adding the natural sweetness of carrots was a smart idea.
spiced chickpea, brown rice, and vegetable stew
This hearty stew with Cajun flavors was filling enough to have been full of meat, and its flavor was rich enough for it, too; chef Hideyo Yamada told us later that it was the addition of trumpet mushrooms that fooled us. An earthy chia seed cracker, grilled broccolini, a dollop of cucumber and shiso leaf pressed salad, and eggplant and shishito pepper tempura with horseradish sauce completed the sampling. I loved the fresh cucumber with the delicate shisho flavor, the buttery broccolini that probably didn’t actually use any butter at all, and the light tempura batter made with quinoa flour (low-carb!) and seltzer water. The bright kick of the horseradish provided a juxtaposition to the richer flavors of the dish.
raw raspberry chocolate cake with a duo of sauces
Don’t even ask me what was going on here. The “cake” tasted like raspberry sorbet over a dense, chewy brownie, but it was raw and apparently made of cashews. What a feat. The tapioca pearls had a strong mint flavor and were dry, not slimy, so they stuck together and formed a solid mass. The fresh fruit was so summery with the mint, but the mint quickly gave way to the more forceful raspberry flavor. It sort of reminded me of the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, which is all about the fleeting beauty of natural objects. I loved the chocolate “tuile”, which was much too thick to actually be considered a tuile, and of course that’s just the way I wanted it.
The Friday Night Dinner at the Natural Gourmet Institute was serious enough that I felt like I was getting an inventive tasting menu at an NYC restaurant, but it was casual enough that I could go there any Friday night. There’s no pretentious decor, no attire requirements, and your placesetting won’t include four unnecessary plates there just for looks. The tickets were about $50, including tip and beverage, it was BYOB, and 10% of the proceeds from each dinner are donated to a worthy cause. The night we attended was graduation night for the students, and they came into the dining room with Chef Yamada to talk about the food, the school, and how it’s changed their lives. One of the students told us about how sick she had been until she started eating a vegan diet and how she chose the Natural Gourmet Institute because they were open-minded about different ways of eating and didn’t force her to take butchering classes like other culinary schools.
You can read more about their history and philosophy here, and check out the menu for the next Friday Night Dinner while you’re at it!
Natural Gourmet Institute
48 West 21st Street #2
New York, NY 10010 (map)