Let’s start with peanut butter and jelly. “I bet it was just about everyone’s first experience of a perfect dish,” says Mark Hinchliffe, the driving force behind Goldie’s, which opened in Asbury Park in August. “But no one was thinking it’s a vegan sandwich. They just were thinking how good it was.”
That, in a peanut shell, gives you the spirit behind the first vegan restaurant in New Jersey with a liquor license. Goldie’s breaks ground in other ways as well. Inspired by the sensuous curves and playfulness of the visionary 20th century Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, it is likely the first vegan restaurant to apply “organic” as much to its design as to its food. And it is surely the first whose name deliberately evokes a Jewish deli where a grandma in support hose ladles out matzo ball soup.
“We are interested in breaking the mindset that in order to eat vegan, you must be vegan,” Hinchliffe says. Stricter than vegetarian, vegan excludes dairy and eggs—indeed all animal products, even honey. Hinchliffe, who considered himself a confirmed carnivore, began eating vegan six years ago. He says he has never felt better. In 2011, he pitched his breakthrough concept to his partners at Smith, the company behind two of Asbury Park’s most successful and progressive restaurants: Brickwall Tavern (a gastropub opened in 2006) and Porta (a big, shed-like space with picnic tables and a lively bar scene, it opened in 2011, serving authentic Neapolitan pizza and Italian small plates). “The concept for Goldie’s was amazing food without preaching,” says Hinchliffe, 30. “We simply want people to explore and have fun. That’s how you change consciousness.”
Here’s a $10 game changer I’ll put against anybody’s fries, onion rings or crunchy bar snack: Goldie’s fried hen-of-the-woods mushrooms with panko crust, apple mignonette and horseradish cashew cream. Order it at a table or at the curvaceous bar, made from layered poplar slabs. The stools have seats like those on vintage farm tractors. Each handmade poplar seat is a bit different, so pick one that fits your beam.
The plate of deep-brown hen-of-the-woods arrives in a ravishing free-form tangle. Tease one out, swipe it through the lush horseradish cashew cream and your eyes may roll back in your head at its epic crunch and meatlike satisfaction. It’s hard to limit your intake to one order.
An $8 warm salad of Brussels sprouts—high on any child’s “no thank you” list, but as trendy now as kale—offers another festival of contrasting textures and flavors. Finished with nutmeg and lemon zest, it comes with plum “butter,” pecan mousse and puffed black rice. Another warm salad—charred wedges of winter squash with cauliflower bechamel and toasted almonds—is as rewarding as it is handsomely presented.
Except for the potato soup with nutty-sweet black garlic purée, Goldie’s small plates and salads make perfect pass-arounds. They won’t all rock your world, but even the most predictable (sliced mild radishes with white-bean purée and crusty rosemary-olive bread) is very good.
Goldie’s shuns all mock meat shtick, but it does transpose certain classics to the key of V. Its Idaho russet steak fries with smoked paprika remoulade and porcini gravy could pass muster at any steakhouse. The $16 leek risotto with mustard greens and toasted chestnuts calls for white wine and subs olive oil for butter and vegetable stock for chicken stock, to no ill effect. The absence of Parmigiano-Reggiano, usually stirred in at the end, is noticeable. The $16 pot pie, filled with butternut squash, dense royal trumpet mushrooms, kale, cranberry beans, celery and cashew cream earns serious stick-to-your-ribs cred.
I developed a fondness for the lip-smacking kale-ginger margarita. Like almost all the eight vegan cocktails on the lunch and dinner menus, it plays well with savory food. The one that doesn’t—the novel and seductive sweet potato purée with lemon juice, pomegranate molasses and Buffalo Trace bourbon—might better be listed with the three terrific cocktails on the dessert menu. These include a smashing Irish Cream, made with Jameson Irish whiskey, Grand Marnier, coconut milk, brown sugar and coffee.
All 11 cocktails were created by Lindsey Taylor, 34, the Smith company’s house mixologist. Taylor, who grew up in Metuchen, designed the eight lunch and dinner cocktails to be equally pleasing with or without alcohol.
That Taylor is not a vegan reflects the Smith philosophy. Spring Lake Heights native Grace Crossman, 29, a comparative lit major who became a chef, worked in Italian restaurants in Manhattan before opening Porta as executive chef. Hinchliffe, who trained as a vegan chef before proposing the idea for Goldie’s, ultimately handed Crossman that role so she could create Goldie’s opening menu.
“One reason I took myself out of the kitchen,” he says, “is that the X-factor in all our restaurants is people who are not experts, in the sense that they don’t bring any baggage about how something should be done. Grace’s menu ideas blew me away. They were so refreshing because she was not aware of what traditional vegan food looks like. Her menu was from another planet.”
People graze on crudites, veggie dips and fries all the time. What may require a leap is the idea of an entire vegan meal. By balancing lighter ingredients with more nutrient-dense legumes, nuts and grains, Goldie’s delivers that pleasantly full feeling, yet chewing is no chore.
The kitchen’s three industrial-strength Vitamix blenders merit special effects Oscars for the way they turn former bit players like coconut milk and cashew nuts into best supporting actors. The result is luscious sauces and creams that deserve standing O’s.
Having beaten that metaphor to death, I will shamelessly note that satisfaction with a restaurant meal often hinges on the strength and originality of Act III. Which is to say that the biggest and most pleasant surprise at Goldie’s just may be how good its desserts are.
You can’t go wrong roasting beautifully fresh figs and sprinkling them with crispy pecan streusel; but mate them with a fine vanilla panna cotta (take a bow, coconut milk and agar-agar) and you have a hit. Fruit cobblers are a no-brainer, but there’s genius in Goldie’s macadamia fudge cake with chocolate sauce and orange bourbon cream. If that should be R-rated, I must slap an X on the warm chocolate croquettes bristly with toasted coconut, all melty dark truffle inside. Whatever planet those come from, I want to visit.