EVEN CARNIVORES APPRECIATE THE PLANT-BASED DISHES AT THE POPULAR VEGAN RESTAURANT
STORY BY Elizabeth Brunetti
Katie Smallwood, manager and marketing coordinator for the plant-powered Great Sage restaurant, knows of a couple whose weekend errands involve a three-hour trek to Clarksville from their home in Virginia, just to visit Conscious Corner. “They come here and do it all – grocery shopping at Roots Market, pet food at Bark!, and a nice meal here at Great Sage. Then they go all the way home.”
Since opening in 2004, the restaurant has become something of a culinary mecca. For one thing, it’s one of the few area restaurants that is strictly vegan. Named one of the “Top 100 Restaurants” in 2012 by “The Baltimore Sun,” and rated it as one of the Best Vegan Restaurants in the D.C. area by DCist.com, the Great Sage prides itself on food that even meat-eaters will like. “Good food can hold its own and the fact that it is healthy and vegan is just an extra perk,” says Smallwood. Popular dishes – among vegans and carnivores alike – include the adult mac and “cheese,” hearts of palm “crab” cakes, lentil burger, and chocolate lava cake.
Smallwood became a vegan 13 years ago as part of an animal rights ethos. “But the longer I did it, the better I felt,” she says. She continues to eat vegan, she says, “because I know it works for me. I know it feels good.”
Many who choose a plant-centric diet, even temporarily, report the same thing. Sarah Davenport, the pastry chef at Great Sage, has been a vegetarian for eight years. “You just feel lighter,” she says. “You have more clarity about things.” There is plenty of concrete science to back up Smallwood’s and Davenport’s claims – enough to make even the most meat-loving of critics do a double take.
A 2009 study published in “The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition” found that people with Type 2 diabetes who followed a vegan diet not only lost more weight than those who followed a conventional diet, but their cholesterol levels at the end of the study were also much lower. A 2012 study published in “Diabetic Medicine” found that participants who ate a vegetarian diet for 24 weeks experienced increased happiness and decreased hunger.
The health benefits of a vegan diet extend beyond weight loss or cholesterol levels. In the documentary film “Forks Over Knives”– the DVD and accompanying book are available throughout Conscious Corner, including Great Sage – Dr. Colin Campbell recalls a study he performed on lab rats. In it, after being exposed to a carcinogen, the animals were fed a diet containing either 5 or 20 percent dairy protein. The rats fed the higher levels of animal protein soon developed cancer cells. “We could turn on and turn off cancer growth just by adjusting the level of intake of [dairy] protein,” he says in the film. Despite the fact that Campbell himself grew up on a dairy farm, the evidence was impossible to ignore. “I know of nothing else in medicine that can come close to what a plant-based diet can do,” he later says.
“We have lots of success stories,” says Smallwood. “People come in [to Great Sage] because their doctors tell them to eat healthier.” Though sometimes hesitant at first, they’ll visit the restaurant a few times, or they’ll do some shopping at Roots Market next door, she says. “I’ve had people come back and say things like ‘I’ve lost weight’ or ‘My cholesterol is lower – my doctor can’t believe it!”
In its own unique way, Great Sage has taken the broader concept of eating vegan and transformed it into a fun, educational, and – if you will – more “digestible” fine dining experience. The restaurant often hosts benefits for vegan-friendly charities such as The Humane League and Compassion Over Killing. The restaurant also offers classes. Recently, Davenport hosted a birthday cake class, teaching people of all ages how to bake vegan goodies. “We made the place look like it was a birthday party,” she recalls. On a different evening, the restaurant welcomed renowned nutritionist Joel Fuhrman, a best-selling author who lectured on the benefits of eliminating oil from the diet.
As much as they have mastered educating the community about healthy, plant-based cuisine, Great Sage staff members are equally devoted to furthering their own education. “We’re constantly learning new things,” says Smallwood. “And we change how we cook and what we serve based on what we learn.” This attention to detail and lack of fear when it comes to self-improvement sets Great Sage apart from other dining choices.
For those who can’t fathom the thought of eliminating all meat and dairy from their diet, just reducing meat intake has significant health benefits. Eliminating meat just one day a week can reduce consumption by 15 percent, according to the Meatless Mondays campaign, an initiative of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Smallwood emphasizes taking small steps when changing your diet, and Great Sage can help. Several of the offerings are designated as transition items for those who still crave the flavors or textures associated with meat.
If you decide to reduce – or eliminate meat – don’t be surprised if you find yourself hooked, says Davenport. “The more plant-based you are, the more plant-based you’ll want to be,” she notes with a smile. “You start to see the world differently. As you become more aware of your food and where it comes from, you start to ask the same questions about other things – like your clothes. You become a more conscious being.”*
Recipes courtesy of Sarah Davenport, pastry chef, Great Sage
DARK CHOCOLATE MOUSSE
1 pack of Mori-Nu silken tofu
¼ cup coconut or almond milk
1 shot of espresso or ¼ cup strong coffee
1 vanilla bean, scraped
¼ cup agave nectar
12 ounces dark chocolate
pinch of salt
Melt chocolate either in the microwave in 30 second intervals or in a double boiler. Blend all ingredients in a food processor until silky smooth. Let chill for at least two hours before serving.
CHERRY “CHEESE” STRUDEL
This recipe may seem challenging but don’t let the phyllo intimidate you. The cashew cheese is also delicious when spread onto bagels or toast.
2 cups cashew pieces (soaked in water for 2 hours)
15-ounce container vanilla soy yogurt
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons agave syrup
1 tablespoon lemon juice
8 cups pitted cherries (fresh or frozen)
1 cup vegan sugar (such as Flordia Crystals)
½ cup cornstarch
1 cup water
1 box frozen (and thawed) phyllo dough sheets
1 cup melted Earth Balance or other vegan margarine
To make cheese:
Blend cashews, yogurt, salt, vanilla, agave and lemon juice in blender until very smooth. Set aside to chill.
To make cherry filling:
Make a slurry by combing the cornstarch and water in a small bowl. Heat the cherries and sugar until boiling, make sure to not burn the cherries. Add the slurry to cherries and whisk until thickened. Bring down to room temperature and chill.
Use a pastry brush to brush melted margarine onto a sheet of phyllo, repeat, stacking layers until you have six buttered sheets of dough. Cut the six sheets in half and place a scoop of cherry filling and a scoop of cheese at one end. Fold up into triangles so that no filling spills out of the sides. Seal with more melted Earth Balance.
Bake at 375 degrees for 12-15 minutes, until golden brown on top.