When Yvonne Levy was growing up in the hills of Saint Andrew Parrish in Jamaica, she knew one thing for sure: she didn’t like meat. “I would pay my brother to eat it,” she jokes from the kitchen of her Elmont restaurant, Toma-Tis Restaurant & Grill. “I’ve always wanted something plant-based.”
As an adult, Levy learned to cook traditional, hearty Jamaican dishes such as jerk chicken and oxtail. When she opened Toma-Tis in 2015, Levy’s menu combined traditional Jamaican dishes with the plant-based dishes she had long perfected with the attention of a chemist, using mushrooms to mimic the tail of beef or chicken, for example, or coconut to give creaminess to macaroni and cheese or squash to tint homemade walnut cheeses. “I was always finding new dishes,” she said.
The word ‘vegan’ can evoke mixed reactions in people – and the assumption that giving up meat and dairy means an unremarkable diet. Between 2 and 4 percent of Americans identify as vegan, according to various sources — but no matter how fast (or not) the number of vegans grows, more and more Long Island chefs are devising vegan-based alternatives. plants for mac and cheese, Reubens, and even Jamaican beef patties that eschew dairy and meat without sacrificing flavor or texture.
In 2019, Levy, now in her late 50s, had gained such a widespread reputation for her plant-based Jamaican food that Uber Eats approached her to create a vegan ghost kitchen, called Liv-In Vegan. The following year, host Action Bronson visited Toma-Tis for an episode of his cooking show on VICE-TV. The growing buzz behind his food, as well as the COVID-19 watershed, forced Levy to pivot Toma-Tis almost exclusively to plant-based dishes last year, using mushrooms, nuts, vegetables , soy, and roots in ingenious ways to trick dishes like escovitched fish (Levy uses tofu) and jerk chicken (which she emulates with mushrooms in the same complex jerk sauce).
After the pandemic hit, “that’s when reality hit that ‘food is medicine,'” said Levy, who is also an engineer and a nutritionist by training.
Between lunch, dinner and the meals she gives at a Rosedale senior center, Levy has only a few moments a week to experiment – usually in the morning – and uses that time to perfect dishes such as vegan baked peas (made with kidney beans). and tiger nut root) and curried “goat”, fashioned from tiger nut flour bound with flaxseed. “I found a raw lasagna and am experimenting with a jerk burger,” she said.
Last year also brought a full pivot to plant-based foods for Organic Corner in Massapequa, a move owner Craig Margulies and his partners were working on before COVID reshaped the restaurant landscape. For years, Organic Corner had served salads, sandwiches and other vegan dishes as part of its healthy eating goal, but Margulies had sometimes noted unease among vegan eaters that the cafe still served meat, for example. He was also struck by the fact that Long Island lacked more formal sit-down dinners for vegan eaters.
Organic Corner’s transition to a full-service vegan restaurant — complete with table service, live music, and organic wine — is complete: A giant Buddha statue greets arriving diners in a space that still has a counter in the back but also an elegant farmhouse feel with wood paneled walls, exposed beams and large windows that flood the room with light.
A few months ago, 23-year-old chef Viktoria Hermann started frequenting Organic Corner as a customer. Hermann, who became a plant eater while studying cooking at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, was hired by Margulies as a barista — and, eventually, as a chef. “When we decided to go all out,” with a vegan menu, Margulies said, “she jumped in and took over.”
During the day, Organic Corner is still pouring out fresh juices and smoothies, and its tills are full of healthy salads, but at 3 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, the juice press closes in preparation for languid plant-based dinners. Hermann and the kitchen team whip up plates of zucchini noodle lasagna with cashew ricotta and gluten-free breadcrumbs, or creamy kale Caesar salad, or melted macaroni and cheese with walnuts. cashews and coconut cream. A “Dirty Corner” menu replicates comfort food such as poutine and nachos with homemade cheese sauces, but barely an ounce of Beyond Meat or Impossible Burger. “We didn’t want to go that way,” said Hermann, whose homemade burger is made with beets and topped with guacamole and a spicy cheese sauce.
There’s organic beer, kombucha on tap and wine, plus gluten-free desserts from the kitchen at Organic Corner and Sweet Soul Bakery in St. James.
Margulies, who is not a vegan, said he noticed diners traveling far from the most easterly and westerly points. “A lot of people have negative connotations about veganism,” he said. “I wanted a place that you could call vegetal, but also open to the general public, for them to sit down and have their eyes light up.”
Here are five places to get finely tuned plant-based fare on Long Island, from delis to multi-course meals.
Toma Tis (796 Meacham Ave., Elmont): Chef-owner Yvonne Levy has spent much of her adult life devising plant-based alternatives to traditional Jamaican dishes and cooks an almost entirely vegan menu at her Jamaican restaurant in Take it to Elmont. Oyster mushrooms, cremini, button mushrooms and portabella mushrooms replace chicken in its version of jerk “chicken” and are also used to trick oxtail. She fuses tiger nut root and flax seeds for a curried “goat”, uses creamy coconut sauce for Rasta pasta, and even makes flaky Jamaican patties from scratch. Jerk pumpkin soup, barbecued jackfruit salad and yucca fries are among the other plates, while fresh juices and dairy-free smoothies are on hand to complement the robust flavors. Food is cooked to order, so plan ahead. Appetizers range from $8 to $12, entrees are $20, wraps are $12, and patties are $3. More info: 516-599-0891. tomatisvegan.com
Organic Corner (37 Broadway, Massapequa): By day, this juice bar and cafe is a cheerful place to unwind with a carrot smoothie or an acai bowl. At night – Thursday through Sunday nights at least – Chef Viktoria Hermann cooks up an all-plant-based sit-down menu featuring dishes like cauliflower wings (with blue cheese sauce), sushi rolls, penne à la Vika (with cauliflower bolognese) and even vegan poutine. Small plates and salads start at $11, entrees are $18-$25, and there are vegan and gluten-free desserts like chips and cheesecake, plus organic beer and wine. More info: 516-798-5670, organiccornerny.com
Ben’s Kosher Deli Restaurant & Catering (59 Old Country Rd. at Carle Place, 7971 Jericho Tpke. in Woodbury, 140 Wheatley Plaza in Greenvale): Wait — has the longtime home of hot pastrami gone vegan? Not quite, but this spring Ben’s Kosher Deli leaned in with a plant-based menu. While vegetarian chili and vegetable soup aren’t quite revolutionary, there’s now a plant-based Reuben made from vegan corned beef produced from beets, chickpeas and tomatoes by Unreal Deli of Ms. Goldfarb, based in Los Angeles. At $19.99, it’s a few bucks more than the hot pastrami sandwich, but that means carnivores and plant eaters can break bread together. More info: bensdeli.net
North Fork Table and Inn (57225 Main Rd., Southold): When celebrity vegetable maestro chef John Fraser moved into this revered North Fork restaurant last year, the menu immediately took on a vegetal sheen — literally, as Fraser is dedicated to putting value seasonal vegetables in all their natural glory. This spring, that means spring onion fritters, barbecue-smoked vegetables (like maitake mushrooms and butternut squash) with jasmine rice, and spring pea agnolotti with pea leaf pesto. More information: 631-765-0177. northforktableandinn.com
Clementine’s Plant-Based Deli and Bakery (4836 Sunrise Hwy., Sayville): The menu changes weekly at this new vegan deli opened by mom and daughter Cira and Chloe Jones in February. A recurring specialty is a crispy buttermilk “chicken” sandwich, made with breaded and fried tempeh, vegan cheddar and pickles, wedged katsu-style between slices of bread. Tofu-chorizo and jackfruit tacos, macaroni and cheese with grilled jackfruit, and zucchini fritters have all popped up recently. (Warning, some dishes may sell out before the end of the day). The bustling bakery in the back offers cupcakes, pies, pies, cookies, and other goodies, and there’s also soft serve ice cream, plus a few dining tables. Most dishes are between $7 and $13. Friday to Sunday only, with menus posted on social media. More info: 631-664-1270 veggingoutatclementines.com