Former Vegan Chef at Red the Steakhouse Does Tofu Three Ways

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There's a perception that the vegan diet, which excludes all animal products, is incompatible with fine dining. In this new series, the Beet Reporter aims to see whether Miami's tastiest restaurants are prepared to feed vegans with something more than boring garden salads.

It's doubtful many vegans have set foot inside Red the Steakhouse. Yet the place has a five-year vegan veteran behind the line: sous chef Tim Crandall.

So when he was recently issued our vegan challenge, the young chef came to our table to explain in passionate detail the four-course vegan meal he had assembled (not on the normal menu) and how, in an indirect way, his own former veganism led him to a job at a restaurant named for bloody steak.

"I was a vegan for five years," he said. "That's how I ended up becoming a chef: I started trying new ways to cook vegan food. As I continued my training, I had to make some sacrifices. You have to be able to taste the food you make."

For the vegan menu, which he crafted specially for our visit, he used all organic vegetables and organic whole-wheat flour. He assured us he was painstaking about avoiding cross-contamination with utensils and cooking surfaces that had touched animal foods.

"I believe people say bad things about the vegan diet because they don't know how to cook vegan food properly," he said. His eyes actually appeared to moisten as he added, "This food is really close to my heart."

Read on to see the culinary gems spawned by his suppressed vegan passion.

After Crandall's unexpected introduction, his first creation rolled our way. It was miso soup with the traditional tiny cubes of soft tofu and shreds of wakame seaweed. As a twist, though, the chef added tendrils of carrot, red bell pepper, and yellow onion.

The broth was refreshing in its low-sodium content; the subtle flavors of the elegant vegetable slivers spoke for themselves. It was a gentle way to whet our appetites for the onslaught of food to follow.

Showcasing tofu in a completely different format, Crandall's next made-from-scratch creation was a homemade tofu-and-mushroom potpie.

The whole-wheat crust of this seasonally appropriate dish was so thick and buttery-rich it tasted like a shortbread cookie without the sugar. Of course it contained no butter; Crandall confided he substituted coconut milk for buttermilk to perfect that creamy flavor. This shell harbored a viscous mashup of chunky, extra-firm tofu; meaty mushroom morsels; and squares of potato, all rolled together in a hearty mushroom gravy. The accompanying arugala salad was so fresh I swear it was still photosynthesizing on my plate.

As a completely excessive third course, Crandall brought us back to the Asian origins of the meal with black and white sesame-crusted tofu, paired with soba and udon noodles, sautéed with julienned vegetables in a sweet-and-sour sauce.

Having loved sesame-crusted tuna in my former omnivorous life, I loved the tofu wedges. The sink-your-teeth-in texture of the tofu was well beyond what the market sells as "extra-firm," a state Crandall was able to achieve by pressing the bean curd overnight. The nutty, smoky sesame and miso crust created a delicious crunchy barrier around the tender marinated tofu "meat."

And the noodles, with their dual textures and flavors (skinny, dark Japanese soba noodles are made from buckwheat flour; thicker, flatter, lighter udon noodles are made from wheat flour), were coated in a tangy blend of hoisin, agave, soy, and canola oil. (Note the thoughtful presentation: The dark and light swirls of noodles reflect the juxtaposition of the black and white sesame seeds on the tofu wedges.)

The final course, our server informed us, was a chocolate sorbet. "Another sorbet?" I started to whine (doing this series has begun to spoil me) before he finished his description. The chocolate sorbet, it turns out, would be immersed in a house-made ginger soda and topped with made-from-scratch cotton candy, flecked with nubs of dark chocolate -- a creation by pastry chef Laura Cheatham.

Not only was the old-fashioned soda fountain-style dessert unlike any other I'd ever seen -- vegan or not -- but it was also absolutely original as a taste experience.

Once in my mouth, the cotton-candy fluff dissolved instantly into a sugary blanket that hugged and melted the chocolate nubs caught in its web. The spicy ginger soda tasted like an aromatic, authentic island ginger beer. Mixed with the smooth sorbet, it was like taking mouthfuls of candied ginger, floating in a frozen chocolate river.

It's unlikely that Red the Steakhouse owner Brad Friedlander and PETA president Ingrid Newkirk will be canoodling over drinks anytime soon, but the steak house's spectacular rise to our vegan challenge shows an admirable openness to what would appear to be a conflicting food philosophy.

Though preparation of most of these specialty dishes would be impossible on the fly, Crandall said he has happily accommodated impromptu vegan customers. He said he can best serve them, though, if their dietary needs are specified a few days in advance with their reservations.

Do you have a restaurant you'd like to see rise to the vegan challenge? Send your suggestions to the Beet Reporter.

Follow Short Order on Facebook and Twitter @Short_Order.

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