I am not a vegan, I have never been a vegan, I have never wanted to be a vegan and most likely never will. In the words of my idol, Anthony Bourdain, “To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living.” When I heard about Charleston’s new vegan restaurant Gnome Café opening it was not high on my list of places to go. But after three months of hearing about it from friends, vegan and non-vegan, I planned a Saturday afternoon brunch. A violent hangover took me out of the brunch game on Saturday and I decided Sunday was a better day to go vegan anyway. Unfortunately the vegans of Gnome Café did not agree because after making the trek down Cannon Street I found the blackboard painted corner restaurant with chairs on the tables and the lights out.
Finally, on Tuesday afternoon the stars aligned and I finally made my way over to the Gnome Café. Once inside, I was surprised to find that it was not filled with dread-headed hippies but buttoned up med students, hospital staff and yuppie parents. The restaurant itself was bright and clean with stainless steel chairs and white countertops, each of the employees donned a black and white plaid flannel and flower boxes full of ferns and succulents adorned the windows. The feel was modern and fresh. After waiting in line for 15 minutes I got my turn at the counter and ordered the Breakfast Sandwich on an everything bagel. The Breakfast sandwich consisted of, tofu scramble, Portobello bacon, and vegan cheddar cheese, all of which seemed like feats of culinary science to me. Before paying I added, “Do you have a green smoothie or something?” The cashier almost giggled as if to say, of course we have a green smoothie, look at this place, but instead of patronizing me she politely suggested the “Greensickle,” which I added to my order. I took a counter seat by the window and surveyed the crowd while waiting for my breakfast.
My name was called from across the room and I went to the bar to pick up a sinister-looking green beverage. The woman behind the counter told me it was made by blending together one whole orange, a handful of spinach, pineapple, coconut yogurt and almond milk. It had that distinctly chalky flavor you expect from vegan food. To me, it was bland and I wasn’t wild about the grainy texture. However, it was refreshing and I felt instantly healthier, like my 20 years of eating whatever I wanted could be cured by drinking one of these gritty green smoothies a day. Not too long after I got the smoothie my food arrived on a tin tray covered in butcher paper. The first thing that struck me was that the tofu scramble was not the off-white soy paste I was expecting, instead it was yellow – a little too yellow to be actual eggs – but yellow none the less. The Portobello “bacon” was simply seared slices of mushroom and a melted cheese looking goo covered it all. Still weary of the culinary magic happening in the kitchen I took my first bite. I was shocked, the sandwich possessed none of the things I hated about the smoothie, The bagel was light, the ‘Cheddar Cheese” actually tasted like cheese, and the tofu scramble was full of bright flavors. The only small downfall was that the Portobello “bacon” just tasted like mushroom and not bacon, which to me is just an error in title not in culinary achievement.
I waited for the brunch rush to die down a little before asking the barista more about the mysterious vegan diet. I learned that tofu can be scrambled with a secret mix of spices to make it look and taste like eggs. The most interesting component of the meal, the Cheddar Cheese, was actually purchased from a plant-based dairy company called Daiya. They make everything from cream cheese to slices to greek yogurt and pizza. The barista also let me know that their Mac and Cheese was made in house with cashew cheese and nutritional yeast, which, I learned, is essentially the center of the vegan universe. After consuming 480% of my daily B6 vitamins I felt like my first vegan meal had gone much better than anticipated. I love my bacon filled cheesy life, but I will definitely be making my way back to Gnome Cafe to try out the cinnamon rolls in the near future.