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Feature Fri Sep 11 2009
Ryan Poli, the Executive Chef at Perennial Restaurant, is serving his first vegan dish. It's a thick cut of thoroughly marinated local tofu, grilled to a very nice char flavor, and deep grill marks. I sat down with Chef Poli to chat about his inspiration for the dish, how it's prepared, and how it's been received.
Chris Brunn: What inspired you to do the tofu?
Ryan Poli: It was really the product that we saw at the Green City Market from Tiny Greens. We were just cruising by and [they] had a sign up that said organic tofu. It struck a little bit of interest because we're always struggling with a vegetarian dish. We always overcomplicate it with, "just a little bit of butter would be great here. And you know what would be really great? Some bacon." The vegetarian dishes always turn into an awesome scallop dish, or a cool striped bass dish. When we got the tofu back, we marinated it. We tasted it. We thought it was something so special that we started to brainstorm. When the final dish came around, it was a vegan dish and not just a vegetarian dish. We're really proud of it.
CB: Why was the dish publicized as a vegan dish?
RP: This is the first vegan dish I've thought out. We have a vegan in the house now. It's a substantial portion of tofu, greens dressed in sesame soy vinaigrette and edamame puree. It has a lot going on. It's not a boring vegan dish that we've had to do in the past because of vegans here. This is now something that we're proud to have. Vegans welcome.
CB: I'm sure they'll be glad to be welcomed.
RP: It's amazing the amount of tofu that we're selling. When we first put it on the menu, we thought we'd see how it goes. I think the second or third night we had sold out of it, eighteen or nineteen portions. The demand is there. We're excited about it. The wait staff is really excited about it. They love to talk about where it came from and how it's made.
CB: Do you know who's ordering it? Anyone who was coming in for filet mignon but tempted by the tofu?
RP: [Chuckles] I hope that's the case. I really do. Some are vegetarian and I think some others are looking for something different, something new, or a little more health conscious. I don't think anyone's coming in looking for prime rib but opts for the tofu. Maybe one day. Maybe one day.
CB: How do you prepare the tofu?
RP: We press the tofu to get a little of the excess water out. It becomes firmer. Then we marinate it in soy, ginger, chilies, mint, cilantro, sesame oil, and a little sugar. Then we Cryovac it [taking the air out of the package] to force the marinade into the tofu for twenty-four hours.
CB: How much better is the flavor when Cryovacing?
RP: It's just faster marinating. It forces the marinade into the product.
CB: Can I order the tofu at the bar if I don't want a full dinner?
CB: I came in not too long ago and had the tofu. One of the things that struck me was the solid sear. How do you do that?
RP: It has to have some color on it. We caramelize it, almost char it. The more color, the more flavor. The tofu really takes on a lot of the flavor of the marinade during the cooking process. Once the sugars and soy sauce start to caramelize, and we get those beautiful brownish-black grill marks, the smokey flavor from the grill really helps out.
CB: The press materials on the tofu said it was grilled until crispy and charred, resulting in steak-like flavor and texture.
RP: That's a great way to describe it, I think.
CB: Is that believable to those who eat steak? Would they eat it and believe it has a texture and flavor like steak?
RP: Ya, I would. The tofu is so firm. It really takes on the flavor of the grill and the smokiness of the grill. Maybe not in a blind taste test.
CB: And the restaurant isn't vegetarian at all, right? You have steak on the menu, right?
RP: We have beef. We sell a ridiculous amount of fish. And now we have a vegan option.
CB: Do you have any thoughts for future vegan menu options?
RP: We're going to run with this one for a while. Maybe as the season changes, we change up the set. We may do something a little heartier. We're thinking of smoking the tofu to take on a Honey Baked Ham-esque type of flavor. The possibilities are endless. The tofu is probably going to be a staple of Perennial.
CB: Sounds like you're having a fun time with it.
RP: Ya, we're having a great time. And every time we sell it, the cooks like it. Everyone really enjoys dealing with the tofu.
CB: What about a vegan dessert?
RP: It hasn't come up yet. But maybe. Maybe we'll do a sweet tofu. Who knows.
CB: I read that you cooked in Spain. If you were doing a vegan dish in Spain, would it be any different?
RP: We would use the products of Spain. Things like saffron. Maybe we'd take the seasonings of chorizo and try to make the tofu taste like chorizo or pata negra ham.
CB: You're big on the tofu, right?
RP: Really big on the tofu [laughs].
CB: Do you cook tofu at home?
RP: No. Never. This is one of the first experiences professionally where I've worked with tofu.
CB: Any unique challenges in the kitchen for cooking tofu or vegan?
RP: Yes. Keeping everything separate to make sure there's no cross-contamination with the meats or the fish. When the tofu comes in, we clean the grill really well. We make sure it doesn't have any beef or fish remnants. We go through painstaking steps to make sure the tofu stays vegan throughout its life.
CB: What else can you make vegan?
RP: We were doing the risotto vegan where it doesn't have any butter or cheese. We thicken it with a natural starch that's in the rice. We keep stirring and stirring. We cook the rice half way with water and oil. So if we have a vegetarian or vegan come in, that's one option for us. We can take the par-cooked risotto and create a new dish out of it.
Perennial is at 1800 N. Lincoln Ave. Reservations: (312) 981-7070. Tiny Greens makes the tofu from Midwest-grown, organic soybeans, according to Green City Market's Web site. Tiny Greens also grows micro-greens, wheatgrass and sprouts.