Written by Nell Alk.
Midtown usually leaves a vegan girl like me feeling less than satisfied. For a more-than-casual business or social meeting, the patch between 31st and 59th, south and east of Hell’s Kitchen, is the land of vegan Hell’s kitchens. The mere suggestion of a mealtime jaunt to Midtown elicits a gargantuan groan from the kind-inclined.
Still, it turns out there’s a bit of an oasis amidst the desert: Todd English’s Ça Va Brasserie. Located at the base of the InterContinental New York Times Square on West 44th between 8th and 9th, Ça Va offers a pleasant brown-hued atmosphere that looks large and feels intimate, lending itself equally well to a meeting with clients, a leisurely lunch with friends, or a dinner date with that special someone.
Most importantly, given advance notice, they’re happy to accommodate vegans, and, as we’ve now discovered, they do it well. Clearly infatuated with hospitality and with food, Head Chef Matthew Corbett says of the off-menu vegan challenge we gave him, “It’s more than fun for me.” He clearly relished taking Ça Va’s incredibly fresh seasonal produce, exotic herbs and spices, nuts, and other interesting (yet oft-sidelined) plant-based ingredients and bringing them to the fore.
Of course, as we arrived at Ça Va and tentatively stepped through the front entrance for our Midtown vegan adventure, we didn’t know that yet. But a very genial greeting from the FOH put us immediately at ease. After our friendly main server brought refreshments and warm French bread (accompanied by a delicious artisanal olive oil and a nice balsamic-mustard mix), Chef Matt then came over and presented a handwritten four-course menu he had devised especially for us.
Like a kid on Christmas morning who wants to savor the exquisite feeling of anticipation, I didn’t look at it—not even after the first dish, a “tomato tartare” amuse-bouche, arrived. Comprising hand-cut tomatoes, shallots, capers, and a few well-placed onion flowers (narrow, white petals) in the style of a delicate bruschetta, it disappeared in two careful bites but was delicious while it lasted. The onion flowers proved a deft touch, balancing well against the tartare’s aesthetic boldness and natural acidity.
For the second course, attentive servers brought over two different dishes. (Why not?) The first featured a colorful collection of spring vegetables: zucchini, candycane beets, peas, carrots, radishes, and hearts of fire (i.e., micro swiss chard), all situated in a carrot juice base. In the center sat the main attraction: a semifreddo panna cotta made from coconut and almond milks, thickened with seaweed extracts, and topped with toasted almonds. This rave-worthy combination was one of my favorites.
The second dish of the second course was a farro risotto, thickened with soy milk and a little bit of seaweed extract, featuring fava beans, green peas, and some chopped celery with a minted pea puree underneath. Delightfully verdant and earthy, it also felt clean and light. The mint translated particularly swimmingly, and the mouthfeel was smooth and appealing.
Then, for the entree, a well-portioned hearty ditalini pasta concoction sent us to heaven. Far from al dente, ditalini is naturally starchier and thus creamier when cooked, and it was a welcome change of pace from more typical pastas. Bathed in a fragrant artichoke Bolognese made up of roasted tomato sauce, zucchini, carrots, chiffonade basil, young celery, and artichokes cooked in leek and carrot stock (then passed through a grinder), it featured a modestly acidic kick while literally melting in our mouths. This dish put a classy spin on comfort food and was a real crowd-pleaser.
Last but not least came a light and pretty dessert (image at top) of raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries commingled with various crushed nuts and herbs (mint, tarragon, cilantro, chervil) spread over a peach and saffron gelée (peach juice infused with saffron, reduced a little bit, then thickened and set with agar). On the side of the oversized plate, Chef Matt smeared a puree of apricot and white wine, making for a tasty jellied port.
All in all, almond milk latte included, it was a sumptuous lunch. And now that we’ve titillated you, perhaps you’re planning your own vegan adventure at Ça Va? If so, a few things to remember. Chef Matt advises that interested parties call ahead and avoid pre-theater rush, so he can devote “love and attention” to your vegan smorgasbord. Also, whereas a party of 12 would be a bit much all at once, up to four or six at a time can be accommodated. Finally, you should expect to pay into the high teens for an appetizer, high twenties for an entree. If you’ve got the funds, it’s well worth it.