Fine fare: the Red Fern
Park Avenue vegan spot offers a new take on comfort food, including a "compost plate"
Rochester’s short-order dining scene is full of guilty pleasures. Neighborhood pizza counters serve up hot slices for pocket change until late at night. Then there’s the iconic regional favorites like a hamburger with a twist bun, beef on weck, deli subs piled high with cold cuts, “hots” both red and white—and, if you’d like, all of the above piled onto baked beans and macaroni salad and smothered with hot sauce, onions, and mustard, also known as the “garbage plate” and other names conjured by Nick Tahou’s many imitators.
However, some among us just can’t handle that stuff anymore. Our bodies (and our cardiologists) are saying, “No more!” Others have decided a carnivorous diet is cruel, unsustainable, or both. Their conscience has led them away from the grease-soaked diners into the great unknown. What is life like after meat?
Restaurateur Andrea Parros understands firsthand that the transition to a vegan diet can be especially jarring because, in addition to meat and fish, it also eschews eggs and cheese. As an animal lover, she became a vegetarian in college and later had to step away from milk and cheese due to a dairy allergy. Finally, she stopped eating eggs and became a committed vegan.
Parros was one of the original owners of the Owl House, a healthful downtown restaurant and bar that includes many vegan and vegetarian dishes on its menu. With the Red Fern, located at Park Avenue and Oxford Street, she has narrowed her focus to a strictly vegan menu, but one that offers greened-over remakes of Rochester’s iconic junk foods. “We serve familiar foods that people have heard of—we just present the vegan version,” she says. “You can still have these things that you know and love, but you don’t have to harm animals in the process.”
Red Fern isn’t the slick, modern bistro that seems to be popping up everywhere. The central light fixture is made from twigs gathered by Parros herself. Customers brought in wood that an employee sawed into cross sections for an intriguing wall installation. The furniture is farmhouse white, except for a lone red chair—a whimsical touch signifying nothing in particular.A copy of the restaurant’s namesake children’s book, Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, rests casually on a shelf.
Diners might not realize they’re in a vegan restaurant at first. There is no in-your-face advocacy in the form of posters, brochures, or asides in the menu. The many substitutes are identified with words like “meat,” “steak,” “sausage,” and “cheddar.” Parros says she wants the restaurant to be welcoming to vegans and non-vegans alike. The menu is designed especially to introduce people to the strict vegetables-only diet with dishes they might recognize. It also serves as a guide for people who would like to replicate their favorite non-vegan meals at home with vegan ingredients.
The mac and cheese nachos appetizer ($10) is made with gluten-free rice noodles and a convincing cashew-based cheddar cheese substitute. Parros shares one of the secrets to creating a more authentic cheddar recreation: plenty of garlic and onions combined with chickpea miso and nutritional yeast to give it the right smell and aftertaste. Salsa verde, roasted tomatoes, and warm corn chips tie everything together—bringing back memories of sports bars or back porch gatherings. The appetizer list also contains small plates of pickled vegetables, rosemary maple tamari almonds, and soups of the day. There are shareable portions of quesadillas or pizzetta, in particular.
Kale is all over the menu—as a crunchy appetizer, a Caesar salad base, a side to a lentil loaf with onion gravy, or one of two beverages. The Green Juice ($5) brings out the earthy body of kale, sweetened with freshly squeezed apples and lemons. Kale is high in protein, and the drink has a linger- ing sense of umami not usually associated with leafy greens. Diners might opt instead for a wine ($8.50) produced from sustain- able farming practices and chemical-free grapes. There are only two choices—red and white—and the beer menu is similarly constrained.“Alcohol is not the focus,” explains Parros.“It’s just an offering for those who may want to enjoy a drink or two with dinner.”
The Compost Plate ($11) is homage to the famous garbage plate that would never be mistaken for Rochester’s favorite hangover helper. For one, it’s full of field greens, more of a dinner salad than a heaping pile of greasy meat. The burger patties and hot dogs are replaced with your choice of meat substitutes, including seitan steak, which is produced by removing the starch of wheat to leave behind the gluten.The texture of seitan is remarkably like sirloin, especially when paired with a spicy hot sauce made with texturized vegetable protein. On the side is the familiar mac salad, a mound of chilled sweet potato salad, and a slice of focaccia (made by Flour City Bakery). Diners can forgo the focaccia if dietary restrictions rule out gluten—most of the menu is gluten free either naturally or optionally.
While most of what’s served at the Red Fern could be described as “transitional vegan,” Parros says a few items are “inherently vegan” without referring to foods found in carnivorous meals. There are regular items like salads and soups that are proudly and independently meat-free—as well as specials such as mushroom risotto. A dessert counter at the front of the restaurant offers several tempting sweets. While vegan bakers can be tempted to overcompensate for missing butter with additional sugar, the Red Fern kitchen keeps things in balance.
New vegans and vegans with meat-eating family and friends will feel right at home at the Red Fern, and this restaurant is only one new spot among a sea of options in Rochester. It’s a welcome proliferation at a time when even meat-eaters are recognizing the health benefits of occasionally abstaining with national movements such as “Meat-less Mondays.” (Alas, the Red Fern, like many area restaurants, is closed on Mondays.) Vegans will be able to enjoy many of the flavors and textures they remember from a carnivorous past, and non-vegans can explore a cuisine as rich and varied as any other.
Mark Gillespie is the communications manager for the Rochester Institute of Technology College of Science. He is an avid fan of the region’s food, culture, and great outdoors.
Photos by Justin Michau.