Saturday, June 11, 2011

Plum Bistro

Within my first month of living in Seattle, it was pretty apparent that I'd have to deal with a food movement that completely clashes with my eating habits: veganism. I had always approached veganism with my eyes rolling to the back of my head. Since then, I've tried a good handful of vegan food, but none stand out quite as much as Makini Howell's Plum Bistro.

Plum Bistro is set up in space that feels invitingly industrial through its smart use of exposed cement and beautiful wood paneling. This cafe passes on the stereotypical indicators of vegan cafes and succeeds in putting together an interior that is welcoming, comforting, and distinctly Seattle. The local Native American art, the restrained use of light fixtures, the vaulted ceilings, and the glass-paneled garage door do nothing but help to establish that environment.

One glance at the menu makes clear that Plum Bistro is full of creativity. Every time I go, I want to try everything all over again, which, needless to say, makes decision-making particularly difficult. It's a good thing that every meal starts off with a bottle of water and a glass of ice with a grabbag mix of freshly sliced cucumber, lemon, orange, or lime. Infused waters always come off as a trend to some, but I've always found them to be a simple way to generally lighten up the meal.

Let's start with three starters that everyone should get when you go to Plum Bistro.

First up, the Roasted Garlic Sweet Potato Fries. These things are no joke. The fries are sweet and crispy, and the garlic-packed salsa verde-like topping with jalapeño aioli is the perfect way to balance the sweet potatoes with some heat. The center of this mound of fries is usually a bit soggy, but the salsa has a way of making even the soggiest of fries delicious. I like the sweet potato fries better, but just as delicious are the Crunchy Garlicky Yam Fries topped with a dill aioli.

Second, the Spicy Mac 'N' Yease. I might like this more than I like regular mac and cheese. Whatever they use for their macaroni is light and the way they bake it gives a nice crunchy edge to a good number of them. The cheese substitute is addictive, creamy, and packed with rustic and intense spices. My bet is on either, or both, turmeric or cumin. This dish always has just enough heat to keep you coming for more.

The third starter you have to get are the Creamed Tofu Filled Cilantro Crepes. These crepes are unreal. Sitting on top of a healthy drizzle of that same jalapeño aioli used in the sweet potato fries, these light and fluffy crepes come topped with cilantro, scallions, and asparagus. The creamed tofu, and the whole dish, really is texturally bland, but when you get the right bite with a bit of each component on your fork, it's absurdly delicious. I could get these and the Spicy Mac 'N' Yease and call it a day, every day, and inadvertently become a vegan.

I've been to Plum Bistro several times for brunch, lunch, and dinner, and each experience has typically been defined by those three dishes. There are some other standouts, though.

At lunch, Plum Bistro serves two delicious wraps. I prefer the Spicy Jamaican Tempeh Wrap. Packed with pickled sweet peppers and onions, tangerine slices, spinach, tempeh, and that same jalapeño aioli, without careful handling, this wrap can get really messy really quickly. The tortilla they use is blistered, toasty, and freshly aromatic. Each bite is packed with flavor: the sweet and juicy tangerine slices add a bright note to the firm tempeh and the peppers, onions, and aioli deliver on the promised spiciness of the dish.

The Chili-Crusted Seitan is one of the heartiest dishes I've had at Plum Bistro. With its clear focus on Mexican flavors, this dish is also one of the more classic-tasting dishes I've had at Plum Bistro. The chili-crusted seitan is packed with spices and is served enchilada-style, wrapped in a tortilla and topped with a delicious Mexican mole sauce. The combination of the salsa verde and avocado salsa on top did a great job at brightening up the heavier mole sauce and seitan. Though the mole isn't the best mole I've ever had, it's definitely very solid. The rice was surprisingly delicious and went really well with the trio of sauces as well. The menu says that this comes with a coconut and green mango cucumber salad and black beans, which I would have loved to try, but the restaurant, and I, didn't realize their absence.

The Tempeh Vermouth is awesome. The vermouth doesn't come out too strong in the tempeh, and the olive oil-based sauce adds a nice, unifying base to the tempeh, pan-seared smashed potatoes, and roasted brussel sprouts. I love anything seared, singed, charred, crusted, or roasted, and this dish was a great showcase of those textures and flavors. Let's not forget those delicious pieces of roasted garlic, too. This dish makes clear that vegan dinner entrées are very possible, can be very delicious, and can be very filling.

The Double-Dipped Seitan is another example of an amazingly filling and delicious dinner entrée. The double-dipped seitan comes off as a country-friend steak of sorts, and the gravy tastes a whole lot meatier than it is, or isn't, really. The asparagus and chives add some necessary greens to the plate and the roasted garlic mashed potatoes make you feel like this dish has always been an American family standard. This dish leaves you feeling fully satisfied without feeling like you just ate an oily chicken fried steak with buttery mashed potatoes.

The last, but certainly not least, outstanding dish I've had at Plum Bistro is the Mama Africa Burger. Though the millet and quinoa burger patty doesn't hold together very well, it's just as satisfying as your typical beef patty. There are much more interesting flavors going on in this patty than a typical burger, showcasing Plum Bistro's signature use of rich and flavorful spices. The bun is beautiful and fluffy, and the sweet grilled onions, fresh tomatoes, bright salsa, and housemade vegan mayo make you feel like you're eating what every American dreams of: a guiltless, filling, and delicious burger. I might have to try to make this at some point over the summer whenever I get tired of grilling beef, which might be never...but still. It's on my list. The side of yam fries and garlic-dill aioli is a nice bonus.

The dishes I've had that aren't really standouts still had certain components that made them memorable and worth getting as a backup.

The Lite Fluffy Banana Pancakes aren't very light or fluffy at all, and you can't really taste bananas in the pancakes, but they come topped with an insanely addictive sweet chocolate mole sauce that goes perfectly with the banana slices. Who am I kidding, though? Nothing beats Tasty Crust's banana pancakes anyways.

The Panamanian-Style Polenta and Chili Gravy comes with a bland bowl of chili with chunks of polenta on the right and an equally boring set of tortillas on the left. The jalapeño scramble and avocado salsa in the middle, however, are delicious. I wish the plate were just a huge mound of that scramble topped with that avocado salsa. No distractions necessary.

The Mama Africa Salad is fresh and bright with slices of orange and strawberry, but overall, the dish came off as typical. The Mama Africa (the millet and quinoa sticks), however, are firm, delicious, and could stand on their own as an appetizer with a set of aiolis.

The biscuits in the Mini Biscuits in Chili Chorizo Gravy I had were dense and stale and the gravy tasted like it needed some more seasoning, but whatever they use for their chorizo is like crack. It's good to know that there's an above-average, vegan substitute to chorizo out there.

With such a large and interesting menu, there's always something new to get at Plum Bistro. I used to think that veganism was a voluntary resignation from eating delicious food. Though I don't think I'll ever go vegan, it comforts me to know that places like Plum Bistro would make being vegan entirely bearable. Makini Howell's food is local, organic, sustainable, vegan, fresh, flavorful, and innovative, all characteristics that undoubtedly put her at the forefront of vegan cooking.

Plum Bistro
1429 12th Ave E
Suite B
Seattle, WA 98122
(206) 838-5333

GET: Roasted Garlic Sweet Potato Fries; Crunchy Garlicky Yam Fries; Spicy Mac 'N' Yease; Creamed Tofu Filled Cilantro Crepes; Spicy Jamaican Tempeh Wrap; Tempeh Vermouth; Double-Dipped Seitan; Mama Africa Burger.


  1. A lot of that looks quite appetizing. I'll have to trust you on the vegan cheese. I've always been skeptical.

  2. Don't think I'd ever eat vegan cheese by itself, but definitely really good mixed in with whatever else they put in that Mac 'N' Yease.

  3. I'm curious: what compels you to "have to deal with" veganism?

    Also, I'm glad you liked plum. Their spicy mac 'n' yease is one of my favorite dishes ever.

  4. Cody, you know me. I try to go where the good food is, and when I got to Seattle, tons of people, vegan and non-vegan, recommended a good number of vegan-friendly places. Before Seattle, I don't think I would have felt compelled to go to a vegan spot (only because I hadn't really experienced a vegan restaurant or eatery before), but the higher concentration and reputation of vegan places in Seattle definitely changed that.

    Having to deal with veganism isn't a bad thing, and I hope you don't think I meant it that way. It's just something that I wouldn't have had to confront or think about if I weren't in a city like Seattle.

  5. In context, I do think it sounded that way, but I figured that might not be what you intended, which is why I asked.

    Have you been to Sutra in Wallingford? If not we should go some time, I think you would like it.

  6. Thanks for asking. I should've noticed that it could definitely be interpreted as entirely negative.

    I've only been to Sutra once, maybe a year ago, and I remember it being awesome. I'd love to go again some time soon.


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