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The Gadarene Swine is a carnivore chef’s complicated vegan venture

A meal often starts with sourdough with a reduced tomato puree. The dish is similar to the charred, half-baked rounds of sourdough with uni served at chef Phillip Frankland Lee's other restaurant, Scratch Bar.
A meal often starts with sourdough with a reduced tomato puree. The dish is similar to the charred, half-baked rounds of sourdough with uni served at chef Phillip Frankland Lee’s other restaurant, Scratch Bar.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Restaurant Critic

The pleasures of veganism, not so long ago the far frontier of meat-free dining, are not as elusive as they used to be. The strictures of raw-food enthusiasts, macrobiotic restaurants and paleo devotees make the demands of vegans, who demand only that their food be free of animal products, seem almost reasonable. In great stretches of Los Angeles, vegan is the new mainstream. In the most progressive of the world’s modernist restaurants now, places like Noma, Arpege, Alma, and Coi, meat may appear only briefly in the course of long tasting menus, which can easily be made vegan.

Phillip Frankland Lee’s Beverly Hills restaurant Scratch Bar is well known for its sweetbread-driven take on chicken and waffles, squid served in a box fashioned from dehydrated potatoes, and bone marrow tucked into logs of toasted bread. He is an aficionado of the squishier side of the animal kingdom. You would not be surprised if he served you ants, rolled pig spleen, or deep-fried tendon, or even all of the above combined into a single dish.

But his new Studio City bistro, the Gadarene Swine, may be the first purely vegan restaurant ever opened by a frankly carnivorous chef, an animal-free zone populated by hummus with seaweed chips served in clay planters and dips served in simulated birds’ nests, and even the ice cream is made out of coconut instead of milk.

The Gadarene Swine is not the place to contemplate a carrot. It is a place to try a vegan take on pasta puttanesca and become vaguely nostalgic for the taste of anchovy.

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While you might expect a populist vegan restaurant to embrace alternative proteins, or an ambitious chef exploring the genre to indulge in the kind of vegetable worship you see at places like Red Medicine and Commissary, Lee’s cooking is basically the same as it is at Scratch Bar, except without the meat: housemade everything, tons of pickles, lots of crunchy dehydrated vegetables, pistachios everywhere, and simple flavors enhanced with olive oil, lemon and salt.

Where a meal at Scratch Bar typically starts with charred, half-baked rounds of sourdough served with uni, at the new restaurant the toast is served with a kind of reduced tomato purée instead. Mussel shooters become tomato shooters instead — you eat the caramelized tomato off a toothpick, down the shot of tomato-infused sake over which it had been suspended, and finish by scraping up the avocado mousse at the bottom of the glass.

Instead of Squid in a Box you will find Vegetables in a Box — that tiny crate of crisped potato plunked into a drift of blackened eggplant purée and filled with thin disks of asparagus, kernels of sweet corn, pickled shimeji mushrooms, and whatever happens to be on hand that day. The effect is basic yet complex, depending more on the delight of the presentation than on the mash-up of flavors.

The last time I was in, Lee introduced his PB&J: an open-faced concoction of freshly churned peanut butter topped with smashed prunes, thinly sliced onions, pickled vegetables and arugula, like what would happen if your dad absent-mindedly garnished your lunchtime sandwich as if it were Black Forest ham on rye.

At the Gadarene Swine, uni isn’t the new kale,; kale is the new uni, served as crisp baked chips with a bit of lemon, or fried and served over a bewilderingly rich purée.

You can sit at the bar and have Lee serve you a 10-course $85 tasting menu, which includes some of the favorites from the regular menu but also Japanese eggplant skins toasted crisp and heaped with diced vegetables; a bowl of roasted purple carrots with sweet potato purée; and sliced strawberries formed into a kind of a corral around a tart salad.

Desserts, made by Margarita Lee, may include a kind of deconstructed pear tart with a caramelized wedge of the fruit, crumbles of pastry, and a disc of pecan pie “ice cream.”

“The olive-stuffed olives are made with honey,” a waitress said on my first visit. “It’s the only animal product on the menu, and I wanted to make sure it didn’t bother you.”

We ended up having a longish discussion on the morality of the hive, and I learned about the purists who disdain the idea of “bee-ganism.” She also pointed out that many of the patrons were actually omnivores who were fans of Scratch Bar. The Gadarene Swine, named for the Galilee hogs into which Jesus cast demons, is a complicated place. I liked the sweet, deep-fried olives a lot.

jonathan.gold@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter @thejgold

The Gadarene Swine

Just add vegetables.

LOCATION

11266 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 508-5500, thegadareneswine.com.

PRICES

Share plates $3-$19; tasting menu $85.

DETAILS

Open Tue.-Thurs., Sun. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Credit cards accepted. Beer, wine and sake. Valet parking.

RECOMMENDED DISHES

Olive-stuffed olives; eggplant chips; hummus with seaweed snacks; vegetables in a box.


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