Back in the 1960s, Walnut Street in Shadyside was, though it seems hard to believe now, the address of Pittsburgh's counterculture, somewhere between the bohemianism of Greenwich Village and the hippiedom of Haight-Ashbury. That era is now long gone, but our recent visit to the neighborhood's Eden brought it to mind.
The food at Eden is inspired by the recently revived raw-food movement, which promotes uncooked vegetables as the ultimate food for health. If that sounds likes the dreary health food of those bygone days, served more as a badge of virtue than as a source of pleasure, think again. While Eden's menu proclaims its vegan-ness and happy accommodation of those with food allergies, it does offer add-in chicken to a few dishes. Its actual slogan is "fresh, local, smart," which is basically the rallying cry of most au courant restaurants. Eden's focus may be more on salads than soufflés, but its approach is the same successful one that's brought us so much delicious food in recent years: the best produce, sourced locally for maximum freshness and flavor.
With that in mind, we waited for the first summer crops to roll in before sampling Eden's wares. The menu was simple, with just a few options in each category: starter, main (raw), main (hot) and sweet. Some dishes were frankly salads, while others were raw, vegan adaptations of cooked comfort foods like "mac-and-cheese" with "bacon." (Quotation marks on the menu were cues that raw plant foods would be subbing for a dish's usual ingredients.) There was also an extensive (non-alcoholic) drink menu with freshly squeezed and blended juices and smoothies.
We began with the soup of the day, a pale-green purée of apples, cucumber and sorrel. It was marvelous: sweet and slightly tart, with pungent notes of kiwi from the sorrel.
Ruby vegetable cakes were little rounds of minced and mashed beets, celery, red peppers and walnut, drizzled with a thin purée of spinach and lemon. Bits of crunchy diced vegetable stood out agreeably against the smooth cakes, and their flavor was bold and slightly sweet, yet balanced.
Angelique found the bruschetta, based on a "crust" made of pumpkin seed and dehydrated vegetables, to be dry and, in a word, unappealing. But Jason found the little toasts a delightful innovation, with a robust, hearty cracker texture and a toasty flavor boosted by the vegetables. The topping, a classic combination of tomato, onion and basil, served as a gentle reminder that we were still a bit early for tomato season.
An avocado dish featured a bright, crisp cabbage slaw, bound together by a creamy purée of avocado, ginger and cilantro, piled atop whole avocado wedges. Angelique, not a fan of traditional coleslaw, thought the use of heartier avocado dressing instead of watery mayonnaise was genius.
Arguably, Eden was most successful when not trying to pass raw vegetables off as cooked dishes normally based on animal proteins and starch. "Mac and cheese" was actually shredded zucchini "noodles" in a cheddar-colored sauce of blended cashews and red pepper, served with slabs of dehydrated zucchini "bacon." One of our children, sorely disappointed, dismissed it as "salad in sauce," which wasn't entirely unfair. But the adults' more sophisticated palates made the connection between this sauce and the pleasures of a creamy, even smoky mess of melted cheese, while finding the zucchini, like pasta, a suitably innocuous vehicle. Meanwhile, alongside, this same vegetable had been rendered into something shockingly similar to bacon, with plenty of smoky, savory flavor packed into a thin, crisp zucchini plank.
Similarly, Jason was a bit skeptical of how coconut would play with chickpeas in a "burger," but somebody had figured out that it adds an umami-like dimension to hearty garbanzo beans, making for a wholly satisfying sandwich, complete with a sesame-seed bun. Tempeh mole featured ingredients both vegan and traditional — tomato, ancho pepper — along with pumpkin and sunflower seeds to render a passable version of the chocolatey Mexican sauce, and the tempeh had enough texture to stand up to it. The one dish to which we chose to add chicken, an excellent Vietnamese salad, would have been just as good without it.
In our home kitchen, Angelique has always been more open to brown rice and alternative proteins. The fact that meat-and-potatoes Jason so enjoyed his meal here is a testament to the creativity and energy of Eden's kitchen, which showed its abilities across all types of dishes.