Marveling at Nu Age Cafe's ambitious but uneven menu
Nu Age Cafe
2425 Exposition, 469-9390
Picture this: A gracious restaurant, complete with table linen and cloth napkins, polished silverware and water glasses made of glass. Servers are in black and white, lighting is subdued, and the menu is extensive, innovative, and vegan. Everything is vegan. You have to admit, this is a great concept: an elegant yet casual vegan restaurant.
From the minute I walked in its Tarrytown location, I was rooting for Nu Age Cafe on the idea of it alone. I am not a vegan, but I know a few, and I can't say I have ever envied their cuisine options. There are many restaurants that have nothing to offer a vegan client aside from a dinner salad with a slice of lemon. Comparatively, Nu Age offers an opulent array of choices, truly a rare luxury.
Upon entry, you encounter a display case filled with a comprehensive variety of teas. The tea list at the Nu Age functions as the wine list ordinarily does elsewhere. There are European herbal teas, therapeutic teas, and Pyramid tea infusions. (There are also iced teas and sparklers, fruit and vegetable juices, soy milks and smoothies. Alcohol is not available, but you can bring your own.) On my first visit, I had a Kiwi Sparkler ($3), a beverage consisting of pureed kiwis frozen into cubes, with a light soda poured over. Essentially, the fanciest glass of Sprite ever, and very refreshing and festive. On my second visit, I checked out the hot teas, and sampled the Blue Forest Tea (blueberries, hibiscus, raisins, black currant, and elderberry, $3), which was heavenly, and the Silk Road Tea (chamomile, peppermint, vervain, wallflower, marigold, and rosemary, $3). The place of wine was perfectly held by the complex and heady teas.
Did I mention the menu is extensive? Perhaps overly so, in that making up your mind is quite difficult, and the execution of the dishes is uneven. I admire the chefs for their ambition. The appetizers were all stunningly presented, geometrically arranged on gleaming white plates, and glowed with color. The Rainbow Soy Wraps were the hands-down favorite ($6), a blend of delicate cabbage and mushrooms, wrapped in a soy tortilla, and then battered, fried, and sliced into crunchy wedges. With the wedges comes a house-made ketchup so delicious it would convert the snootiest Frenchman into admitting that ketchup is a respectable sauce. The Scallion Mango Pita ($5) is both sweet and savory, with lovely cubes of fresh mango, jicama, and field greens astride grilled triangles of scallion pita. The Hummus ($5) is fresh and beany, and served with sliced carrots and cucumbers. The Nu Age Dumplings ($4, steamed or pan fried), though perfect in texture and consistency, were less flavorful than the soy wraps.
The Mango Spinach Salad ($8) was a meal in itself, and the blend of flavors (mango, spinach, candied walnuts, sweet grape tomatoes, and French-fried onion rings), innovative. Sadly, the tart dressing was too heavily applied, or perhaps just too acidic. The Nu Age Veggie Burger ($7), however, is unquestionably the finest I have ever eaten. Served with yam and yucca fries (and the transcendent ketchup), it is nicely upscale, but the remarkable thing about it (that I found irresistible) is that is really does taste like a healthier and more wholesome Big Mac. How they captured the flavor of melted American cheese without actually using any cheese whatsoever remains a piquant mystery.
The Malaysian Roti Prata ($8), soy globs in a coconut curry, was unfortunately both mushy and rubbery, although the roti, which are rather like popover discs grilled to order, were beyond scrumptious, simultaneously airy, chewy, and crisp. The Garden Stir-Fried Noodles ($8) were nicely seasoned and filling, as was the Japanese-style basiled eggplant ($7), but the dish that truly wowed me is the Sesame Seitan ($15). Served with bright green curly kale, the seitan had the toothsome, crispy mouthfeel of General Tso's chicken, the sauce lightly redolent of black bean paste and dried plums. Absolutely outstanding. The brown rice, wrapped in a banana leaf, that accompanied the seitan was a testament to cooking skill, in that (gasp) it was light and fluffy. In case that slipped by you, I will repeat: short grain brown rice, light and fluffy.
From the dessert list, we chose the wildly popular Nu Age Chocolate Cake ($5). Despite the absence of both butter and eggs, the cake is moist, with an intense chocolate flavor, light icing and a delicate crumb. We also sampled the Hazlenut Napoleon ($5) crisp superthin wafers drizzled with fruit sauce, layered with vanilla soy cream. Not as incredible as the chocolate cake, but I managed to eat every bit.
The Nu Age uses organic ingredients whenever possible, and you do not have to be a vegan (or even a vegetarian) to have a wonderful meal. I imagine that most people's experiences at the Nu Age will be similar to my own; some dishes fantastic, and others so-so. But what a treat it is to have a place like this in town.