While watching Bad Vegan, I had to wonder whether Sarma Melngailis’s lasagna was as bad as her decisions.
In case you’ve been dead all week, Bad Vegan is a four-part Netflix series that chronicles a scam pulled on star restauranteur Melngailis by her former boyfriend, Anthony Strangis. While providing a sketchy portrait of his life, Strangis elbowed his way into Melngailis’s businesses of the raw vegan New York restaurant Pure Food and Wine and its takeaway sister shop One Lucky Duck. He also extracted nearly $2 million from her, as a test of her loyalty, with promises that she’d be paid back and then some. (Spoiler alert: She wasn’t.) Though Melngailis was so far under Strangis’s spell that one could argue that she was “brainwashed” (as scientifically dubious as that term is), the effect is less like watching someone be wooed into a one-woman cult and more like watching someone julienne her way into the open jaws of a crocodile. The upside is that Melngailis made enough bad decisions to pad out a must-see Netflix limited docuseries, which begs the question: Were they really such bad decisions after all?
Early on in the doc, someone mentions the signature dish of Pure (which shuttered in 2015), a raw vegan lasagna. That sounded to me like raw vegan foolishness. I have a cordial relationship with vegan cheese and I believe in my heart of hearts that you don’t need dairy to make lasagna. Until this week, however, I couldn’t imagine a lasagna without noodles any easier than I could a sky without stars or a cat without whiskers. It just seemed to violate the natural order of things.
I should explain my biases/habits further: I don’t like the term but for the sake of brevity, I’m a pescatarian. I tend to eat vegan during the day (though this is by no means a strict rule) and even if my dinner does include some dairy/fish, it’s usually predominantly plant-focused. I eat at vegan restaurants pretty frequently, and enjoy the breadth of New York’s offerings, from fast food-type places (Beatnic, Veggie Grill) to plant-based diners like Champs to higher end, more creative spots like Avant Garden and ABCV.
Which is to say that I have quite a bit of experience with New York’s vegan cuisine. I enjoy it, but not being technically vegan myself, I don’t need it to be good. I’ve had enough vegan food to be able to evaluate it for what it is, but I eat non-vegan frequently enough so that my standards aren’t entirely skewed. Food is food, and a vegan meal should be as satisfying as any other.
It was with these biases that I gladly accepted a meal that was offered to press to promote a Bad Vegan tie-in collaboration between Postmates and Netflix that starts today and will run through Sunday. “Netflix is teaming up with Postmates to bring back the iconic vegan cuisine from former hotspot Pure Food and Wine for a limited time in New York,” read the press release. And then a bit further down: “Chef Nikki Bennett, former head chef of Pure Food and Wine, will be leading the kitchen to recreate a menu of nostalgic raw dishes from the famed New York restaurant.”
One of these dishes included that lasagna mentioned in the series. Hoping for the best but expecting the worst, I knew I had to try it. Worst case scenario, I figured, was I’d be biting through thick layers of zucchini “noodles” wishing for a different life. Best case scenario: My idea of what a noodle could be would expand and, by extension, so would my mind.
The meal arrived in three courses. First up was the Caesar salad described like this on a card that came with the delivery: “Romaine and kale salad with pumpkin seed Caesar dressing and walnut nori crumble.”
Here’s what the promo pic looked like:
And here’s what my delivery looked like:
This completely rocked my world. The seaweed was an ingenious way of gesturing toward the oceanic nature of anchovies without getting things all fishy. The dressing was creamy as it should be and I detected a slight citrus acidity in it. All together, this was heartier than your average Caesar without a major protein component. My sole complaint is that it was too small. I wanted more as soon as I was done. I still feel that way. I’m sad and miss my salad.
Next, the dreaded noodle-free lasagna. Here’s how that one was described: “Zucchini and tomato lasagna with sun-dried tomato sauce, spinach basil pesto, and macadamia ricotta.” Oh boy.
It arrived looking unremarkable, a salad in bad baked-pasta dish drag (the dish, after all, consisted of vegetables stacked strategically). I tried a dollop of the macadamia ricotta that was sitting on top first and it was good. Not amazingly flavorful, and the texture was drier and crumblier than typically juicy ricotta. It was more like the mildest feta that ever existed than a ricotta facsimile (but still good). However, layered in, this ric-notta was fantastic in concert with the pesto. It was kind of like a good cop/bad cop dynamic except it was good filling/better filling. The pesto in turn bombed the sweet tomato sauce with basil. The zucchini was cut so thin as to actually resemble the texture of broad al dente noodles. The whole tomato (layered in addition to the sauce) was thicker and that kind of soft chunky texture was my least favorite thing about the dish, but nothing near close to distracting from a wonderful lasagna-like experience. Instead of the heaviness I feel after chewing on layers and layers of noodles, I felt refreshed. You could have knocked me over with boiled noodle. I was completely amazed by this lasagna that I expected to despise. I found it frustrating that it was served in a container with so many ridges because the sauce kind of stuck to them, making it difficult to get it all in my mouth, where it belonged.
Finally, dessert was a mock Mallomar (“Almond-pecan wafter dipped in chocolate, topped with vanilla cream drizzled with chocolate”).
It was the kind of vegan dessert that is essentially undistinguishable from a non-vegan one, but for the textures that the vegan nature of the dish improves on (the nut-based wafer was stronger and crunchier, the marshmallow less stick-to-your-intestines gloopy). It was definitely sweet but of course it was, as it was dessert (which I believe can never be too sweet).
What a meal! This Pure place, or at least the contemporary approximation of it, checks out. Much is made of Pure’s reputation and its celebrity-attracting powers in Bad Vegan, and while I was skeptical initially, it actually makes tons of sense. Great food! It turns out that baby, I like it raw.