The Fiction Kitchen, Raleigh's only 100 percent vegetarian restaurant, creatively converts your garden-variety produce into inspiring dishes that appeal equally to those who choose not to consume animal products and those who do.
Chef Caroline Morrison, whose endearing Morton Salt Girl tattoo was a gift to herself for completing culinary school, is not on a mission to convert carnivores to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. However, her Sashimi Tofu appetizer is a persuasive substitute for meat. Neat oblongs of tofu become pink-tinged, sesame-crusted slices that look, for all the world, like bites of succulent pork tenderloin. Our good-humored and knowledgeable server, who declared that she could share no more than one secret per course, whispered that the tofu got its distinctive color, taste and texture from a bath in beet juice.
Starters range from $4 to $12. At the midpoint, the huge portion of still-warm Root Vegetable Chips sprinkled with house-made rosemary salt—a half order is available as a side—is an agreeable accompaniment to the eatery's specialty cocktails. The Briar Patch tempers bracing Troy & Sons Moonshine with a spoonful of blackberry jam. The pale pink, cucumber-infused Carolina Pimm's deftly tweaks the classic but sometimes astringent Pimm's Cup. The drinks were reasonably priced at $8 and $6.50, respectively, which surely is part of the reason that all bar seats were claimed during a recent weeknight visit.
The lively atmosphere and appealingly kitsch retro decor makes The Fiction Kitchen as welcoming to the hipster crowd as it is to young families, who were present during the early dining hours. What kid, young or old, wouldn't enjoy a main course of fried "chicken" and buttermilk waffles? My vegan guest, who recently ended an extended dietary lapse, marveled at its authentic taste and texture, which suggested—tender hearted, be warned!—crispy fried skin.
"Awesome," she said, pausing only to dunk bites into sweet agave syrup.
Surprisingly, while summer officially began last Friday, the titled "winter menu" was still in place on our visit. Choices ranged from $10 to $15, including the daily special.
Seasonal vegetables were very much in evidence, however, in the golden Curry Bowl, which is customized on a scale of 1 to 10 according to the diner's tolerance for spice. Our server's secret this time was that this savory dish leans hot; I asked for a weenie 4½, which met my perfect curry standard of turning the top of my head barely damp. If that's too much information for you, know that its garden basket array of lightly cooked vegetables stood up well to the rich and fragrant sauce.
Desserts can be the downfall of a restaurant that eschews dairy, but The Fiction Kitchen did not disappoint. Most selections are in the $5 range. The vegan cheesecake with Oreo cookie crust was sumptuously creamy and accompanied by a vivid and slightly tart puddle of fresh strawberry sauce. The day's special was an olive oil cake with peaches topped with a generous dollop of coconut milk whipped with honeysuckle. Half of the large portion of tender cake went home in a take-out box, but not much of the topping made the journey. Though the honeysuckle flavor was so understated as to be unnoticeable, the whipped coconut milk was a revelation.
The Fiction Kitchen's website states that brunch and lunch hours are "TBA." Two hopeful attempts to visit at lunchtime were met with a locked door and chairs neatly overturned on tables. The restaurant would be a welcome addition to Raleigh's warehouse district lunch scene, and the dinner menu teases happy thoughts about brunch options. Until then, vegetarian or carnivore, bring your appetite for a pleasing evening's repast.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Farm-to-fork menu bypasses the barn."