New York vegans are a savvy culinary crew who seem know the instant a plant-based dining hotspot has opened in Manhattan. But this one may have eluded even the keenest.
“One of New York’s best kept secrets,” is how both Susan Baldassano, director of chef’s training program at the Natural Gourmet Institute, and chef-instructor Elliott Prag describe the three-course mostly vegan dinners (with occasional organic dairy) prepared every Friday by students in the professional chef’s program. And they’d be right.
Under the radar as they are, the weekly feasts have been a tradition for almost all of the 36 years the school has been around. And like the health-focused school itself—which started in founder Annemarie Colbin’s Upper West Side apartment and eventually grew into bigger-but-still-cozy digs on West 21st Street—they’ve grown in popularity as mainstream food culture has caught up with Colbin’s thinking about food’s impact on health.
Now the dinners, which seat 100 people, typically sell out, often about three weeks in advance. Many guests are friends and family of the student-chefs preparing the meal, but others are people who are curious about the NGI’s professional or recreational cooking programs, or just healthy New Yorkers in search of a good meal.
“It’s still rare to find a three-course vegan meal prepared with this much attention,” says Prag, who attended NGI as a student before joining the faculty, and advised the students preparing dinner the night I attended. (Although more are emerging.)
Each dinner at the Institute has a seasonal, geographic, or occasionally whimsical theme (e.g., aphrodisiac)—it was Georgian (as in the country, not the state) the night I went—chosen and prepared by student chefs as part of their final project.
Portions are generous, and the dishes are well presented, flavorful, and complex, such as a starter of chilled borscht topped with cashew “sour cream” with kasha dolmas and pickled-mushroom salad. Perhaps most appealing is the price: $40, including tax and tip. And drinks are BYO, meaning there’s no restaurant markup.
Although the slightly cramped dining room and the lighting that’s a bit more institutional than atmospheric keep it from being a perfect replacement for the much-missed 4-Course Vegan suppers chef Matteo Silverman used to prepare in his Williamsburg loft, the Natural Gourmet Institute’s Friday night dinners belong on a vegan’s bucket list for good food, good company, and great value. —Ann Abel
Natural Gourmet Institute Friday night dinners, $40, BYOB, 48 W. 21st St., Flatiron, 212-645-5170, www.naturalgourmetinstitute.com