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For someone with just the tiiiiniest bit of ADD like myself, the concept of the pop-up restaurant seems like the best idea on the planet. You develop some exciting new recipes, cook them for people for a few days in a brand-new space, blow some minds, rock some worlds, and then move on to the next exciting new thing before you get bored (there may be one or two other steps involved in creating a pop-up restaurant that I left out). I kind of want everything I do to be a pop-up-whatever-it-is from now on. I might stop writing this review two paragraphs in. You’ll get the gist of it. I’ve got other projects to work on.
For serious chefs like Ayinde Powell, of course, a pop-up restaurant like WildFlower is a chance to experiment, to take risks, to try new things, and to give people a unique dining experience that they’ll never forget. Last week Annie likened it to being at an epic (sorry, but it’s appropriate here) concert, where the only people who will ever truly understand are the ones who shared that concert hall with you. Concert hall or, in my case, dormitory basement, where I saw At The Drive In open for the Get Up Kids at Conn College in like 1998. I had my concept of what punk rock could be completely altered, and my face rocked right the fuck off. I am excited to report that WildFlower—New York City’s very first vegan pop-up restaurant—resides squarely in that category.
Located at LTO (Limited Time Only, natch) at 171 East Broadway, WildFlower existed in the world for exactly three days. In that time, Chef Ayinde and his crew served up a Southern Contemporary American Supper on Friday night, Louisiana Cajun brunch on Saturday, a gluten-free Raw-Fusion dinner on Saturday, Petit Dejeuner (best French term ever) Waffle Brunch on Sunday, and Street Food Favorites for dinner on Sunday. Annie and I were lucky enough to snag a spot at the table for Sunday brunch, alongside Marissa Miller Wolfson, outreach director for Kind Green Planet and producer of the documentary film Veguated, and Chloe Jo Davis, founder of The Girlie Girl Army.
One note about our pictures: immediately after we arrived (I swear it wasn’t me), WildFlower’s waffle maker went on the fritz. You’d think this would be a big problem for, you know, a waffle brunch. The kitchen made the switch to pancakes on the fly, and somehow, our meals were still served faster than in just about any full-time restaurant we’ve ever been to. That’s real hustle—everyone on the kitchen staff gets a Tommy Point.
I had to order The Closest I’ll Come To “Chicken and Waffles”, mostly because of the hilariously begrudging name. I’ve never even had real chicken and waffles. Even as a pancake dish, the flavor combination was spot-on. The subtle sweetness of the tangy-tart barbecue flavor from the tempeh “chicken” blended perfectly with the maple syrup, and the fluffy, light-but-hearty pancakes were a perfect accompaniment. It reminded me of why people serve cornbread alongside barbecue, and I found myself wrapping the little tempeh nuggets up in pancake strips to make sure I enjoyed the flavors together. I half expected Annie to tell me to stop playing with my food—which is when you know you’re really enjoying a meal.
I’ve eaten enough soul food to know that nothing goes better with fried “chicken” than mac & “cheese,” and the Mac & Yease side dish didn’t disappoint. It had a creamy, decadent texture, and a savory, Cajun-inspired flavor that made you want to go in for an immediate second bite after your first, like you might double-take at a cute gi… um, puppy you see on the street. It was the tiniest bit on the oily side, but not enough to distract you from enjoying this perfect combination of soul food soul mates.
Annie ordered the Mexican Hot Cocoa Waffle, being the die-hard fan of chili-infused chocolate that she is. The cayenne flavor was just the right degree of subtle—enough to bring out a different side of the chocolate, but light enough so that you still felt like you were eating waffles (or in our case, pancakes). The hand-whipped cream was light, and sweet without overdoing it. This was a dish that could have easily just been a vehicle for sugar overload, but in Chef Ayinde’s hands became an exercise in delicate balancing of flavors.
Finally, the menu described the Bacon Placebo side as being “for all the bacon lovers out there”—an apt description. People who are obsessed with bacon are generally obsessed with two things about it—the texture, and the flavor. Chef Ayinde’s tofu bacon came the closest to a pitch-perfect replication of both of any fake bacon we’ve ever tried. It had bacon’s signature, contradictory crisp chewiness , with a rich smoky flavor that was the standout of a universally delicious meal. Annie and I puzzled over it for a good portion of our meal, like trying to figure out how the magician pulled your card out of the deck. You know there’s a reasonable explanation… right?!?
We use a lot of fake meat products on this blog, and we certainly intend to keep on doing so. However, WildFlower’s menu proved how closely you can replicate savory meaty flavors without going down the same old fake-meat road. Chef Ayinde also showed that the old dogs—tofu and tempeh—still have a few new tricks left in them yet. Sadly, you already missed the boat on WildFlower, but stay tuned for Chef Ayinde’s next project—if it’s anything like this one, you’ll want to make reservations early.