Sometimes, a story idea for The Pursuit blog comes out of an innocent comment or a well-asked question.
Like this one.
Earlier this month, our Marketing and Communications staff was compiling information for November as National Vegan Month.
As we curated information on the best vegetarian restaurants, a timely question arose: What do vegans do for Thanksgiving?
For the answer, we turned to Dan Brightcliffe, one of the co-owners of Flora, a vegan restaurant in Jenkintown. Flora has been open just over a year, and in that relatively short time, it has already garnered praise from outlets like the Huffington Post, according to Brightcliffe.
Flora's approach to vegan dining - both during the Thanksgiving holiday and beyond - is to take a head-on approach of embracing vegetables. Flora concentrates on enhancing their textures and flavors rather than trying to recreate meat dishes without their signature proteins. "We use no meat substitutes," Brightcliffe says. "We're not using things like soy to try to make dishes that would usually involve beef or poultry."
For example, Flora serves an eggplant steak rather than trying to fashion some sort of faux filet mignon out of a vegetable product. This time of year, therefore, there's no sign of Tofurkey.
"My favorite thing on the menu is the spicy cauliflower wings with lemon-thyme waffles," Brightcliffe admitted. "It's a play on traditional chicken and waffles."
Flora is closed Thanksgiving itself but is holding to its normal hours, 5-9 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
"We're taking phone orders for carry-out," Brightcliffe said. "I had a woman call already and tell me that her niece was coming in for a couple of days, and that she is vegetarian. She ordered our Shepherd's Pie for pick-up. It's a way that the whole family can celebrate at the same time, without making someone feel out of place for not eating meat."
I met Chef Timothy Thomas and dessert chef Lamar Bell. They, along with Brightfcliffe's business partner Patrick Durison are the four-person team who keep the 16-seat restaurant humming. The dining experience at Flora is particularly focused on doing a small number of dishes exceedingly well. Dinners are a four-course odyssey of flavors and textures, all without the use of animal products.
Thomas decided that the best way for me to understand the culinary viewpoint of Flora was to sample a dish.
"Do you like Brussels sprouts?" he asked.
I say yes, but I'm remembering my mother's unfortunate version, which involved boiling them essentially into mush.
He cooked one of the menu's second courses: pan-seared Brussels sprouts with southern style pot liquor reduction and crispy shallots.
I speared a sprout and gave it a taste. The vegetable portion was crunchy and just a little sweet, and the sauce provides a multi-layered zing that ends with tinge of peppery heat. The shallots provided a salty-crunchy accompaniment that made the dish perfect.
"A lot of people pair Brussels sprouts with bacon," Thomas said. "The sauce here is a little smoky to replicate that."
Dessert followed: a slice of honeycrisp apple that had been battered, deep fried and sprinkled with confectioners' sugar. It was like an apple-stuffed funnel cake, and I gobbled every bite.
As chef Thomas explained, dessert is often one of the most difficult aspects of vegan cooking. "Ice cream is really hard," he said. "Traditional ice cream is all about the fat content of the dairy that's used. When the dairy comes out, it's challenging to get the taste and consistency just right." Thomas has infused Flora's ice cream choices with some startling flavors such as lemon poppy seed and rosemary.
Pumpkin pie is almost as challenging as ice cream. But Thomas worked that out, too. It is richly accompanied by chocolate coffee whipped cream and toasted pumpkin seed brittle.
Brightcliffe's ownership of a vegan restaurant has led him to adopt a meatless menu, a choice he flirted with earlier in life but committed to wholeheartedly in running Flora.
"I'm here a lot," he said, motioning to the cheery dining room. "I am the face of the front-of-house. So I eat here a lot. It also helps having a vegan chef so close. I've cooked at home and run into a problem with a particular technique and sent Tim a quick text: How do you do this?'"
Flora operates from a price fixe menu that changes seasonally. The three-course option is $35, while the four-course (which adds dessert) is $40. Given the small dining room and attention afforded every guest, reservations are strongly recommended. The restaurant readily invites diners to take advantage of its BYOB service.
307 Old York Rd, Jenkintown
Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday: 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Reservations are recommended