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Rob Bartlett

Plant-based dining reaches indulgent new heights in Winter Park at Proper & Wild 

"This building has had three different vegan restaurants," says my vegan gal pal, gazing down at Proper & Wild's cashew-creamed truffle penne ($16). Its garlicky vapors jog my senses, then my memory back to Inauguration Night 2009 when I, along with the good specter of hope and change, walked into Café 118 and feasted on a Matthew Kenney-designed menu of raw food that proved revelatory. Those were heady, buoyant times, and those dishes exposed the possibilities of what plant-based dining could be.

When she takes a bite of the penne and follows it up with, "It's hard to do cashew cream right," I think yes, we have come a long way. To be deliberatively assessing the consistency of cashew cream at a restaurant as slickly designed and packaged as Proper & Wild says something about how far our meatless dining scene has come. And we have Chelsie and Jamie Savage to thank for that. Vores both herbi- and carni- hold the couple's Sanctum Café in a similar regard as Angelenos hold Sqirl. There's a sort of street mystique about the place so, naturally, justifiably, we could barely contain our grain-fed selves at the thought of the Savages opening this higher-end restaurant off brick-lined Park Avenue.

click to enlarge ROB BARTLETT
  • Rob Bartlett

Since P&W's opening earlier this year, Chelsie has listened to her avid customer base and implemented changes for the better, most notably the spicy makhani curry ($18). Early on, patrons were a bit stunned at how spicy the tomato-based curry was – "Inedible!" said one friend; "burned my face off" said my editor – and the recipe was soon adjusted. Oh, the curry will still get you sweaty and a bit bothered, but it won't leave you shrieking for your mommy. BTW the makhan, or butter, is made from cashew and coconut cream. In this case, the consistency was perfect and the splash of mint-coconut raita subtly palliating. My lone gripe is that the curry needs to be served with rice or, better yet, a naan-like bread baked in their Mugnaini wood-fired pizza oven. The house pita ($3) could work, I suppose, but I much preferred taking bites of the very seasonal "summer garden" sourdough flatbread ($17) layered with purple potatoes, sweet corn, sweet peppers, chimichurri and white balsamic along with the curry.

On other visits, I've sipped on healthyish sake-based cocktails while making meals from a medley of apps: popped heirloom corn ($4) to start, then gold bars of chickpea fries ($9) slicked with a patina of pistou and a vindaloo-almond aioli; a kale and artichoke dip ($12) might follow, or a capper of beet tartare ($10) itself capped with a turmeric-cashew "yolk." It's beautiful stuff and, apart from the stale bread accompanying the dip, it was utterly gratifying.

I noted the deletion of the whole roasted cauliflower head from the menu (smart move, IMHO) and a more remarkable yellow curry-kimchi burger ($15) added to the list of mains. OK, so the crisp lentil/black rice/beet patty may not have held its form for very long, but the East-meets-Far-East flavors were just large. Same goes for gorgeous heart of palm cakes ($17) stacked over a herbed tartar sauce.

Finishes, like dark chocolate-avocado torte ($8) and passion fruit and orange pot de crème ($8), aren't big, but they're certainly fine and well. That said, I'd love to see Chelsie and Jamie take desserts to a more proper and perhaps wilder frontier, particularly in a higher-end setting like this. I'm sure they'd agree that such a move would be, well, Savage.

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