It’s so cool that Charlotte, NC is now big enough to have several veggie restaurants … each with their own distinct personality!
There’s Bean Vegan Cuisine – down home Southern cooking in a diner-type atmosphere. Zizi’s – soul food deli takeout. Luna’s Living Kitchen – exquisite raw vegan food. Berrybrook Farm – homey, healthy sandwiches and smoothies for your lunchtime takeout.
And Fern, Flavors From The Garden? Fern is what folks around these here parts would call our “fancypants” veggie restaurant.
Fern opened in October 2011 and immediately became hugely popular with vegetarians and curious omnivores.
But Fern had a harder time winning vegan respect.
For starters, Fern is owned by The Mother Earth Group, which also owns Something Classic Catering and Halcyon. Halcyon is a highly regarded but extremely meat-centric restaurant which has featured things like lamb, foie gras, and crispy pig ears. The owners of The Mother Earth Group are not veg, nor is Fern’s general manager Lou Bohland and head chef Drew Trepanier.
This has led to some interesting problems and faux pas.
Servers often didn’t seem to understand the difference between vegan and vegetarian (or the different types of vegetarian – octo, lacto, etc.) and couldn’t answer simple menu questions – “If I ordered this without the cheese, would it be vegan?” “Does this have egg?” “It’s vegetarian.” “I know, but does this have egg?”
Vegan customers could sometimes overhear crossover customers from Halcyon commenting to their server about the excellent meat-based meal they’d had at Halcyon.
Organic wine was mistaken for vegan wine. (Vegan wine – wine that has not been filtered with eggs, shellfish, or gelatin. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out this article about vegan-friendly wines.)
A brand rep from Mother Earth Group tweeted and posted on Facebook Rachael Ray’s tweet that she ate chicken at Halcyon – on the Fern sites!
However, the likeable Lou Bohland (GM of Fern) has always been quick to step up and put things to rights. She apologized for not knowing about vegan wines and came out with a new wine list. She immediately removed the offending Rachael Ray tweet and Facebook post. It also seems Fern has been featuring more vegan dishes – their holiday menus were mostly vegan.
So, with Fern’s new Spring menu, I thought it was time for vegans to give Fern another chance.
My Testing Group: A vegan, almost-vegan, vegetarian, and omnivore foodie.
Atmosphere: Dinner in Martha Stewart’s potting shed. Everything is painted soft shades of … you guessed it … fern green. The chairs are garden furniture, wicker with comfy fern green cushions. Live ferns appear to be growing from the wall and the lighting fixtures are Mason jars. Eating utensils look a little like garden implements, and the bill is delivered to you in a little aluminum flowerpot.
Menu: Eclectic, creative, upscale. Small (just 7 dinner entrees, 8 if you count the OM burger, plus appetizers and salads). Changes seasonally. Vegan items are marked with palm fronds and gluten-free items have a “GF” next to them. To Fern’s credit, most items do not attempt to impersonate meat. It’s a little pricey – dinner items run from $11 (for a burger, more if you want cheese on your burger) to $18.
Service: Awesome, actually. Both our servers were much more informed and helpful than servers in the past. For example, our main server, Christa, knew that the Om Burger was vegan even though the menu doesn’t have the fern frond symbol beside it. She also advised how the Triple Onion Soup could be made vegan. And when our secondary server observed the omnivore foodie sharing his pasta, she quickly ran over and warned, “That’s not vegan!”
We began with smoothies. In a show of solidarity, we all chose the Lean, Mean, and Green Smoothie. What can I say? It was a decent enough green smoothie. The smoothies did take quite awhile to prepare, though, leaving us sipping our cucumber water for a good 20 minutes.
Next, appetizers. (Bad news – Fern’s famous Squash Blossom Hush Puppies are no longer on the menu!)
The vegan version of the Triple Onion Soup was the biggest hit. Pumpernickel bread and caramelized onions, shallots, and scallions were brought to the table in a bowl, then broth was added to the bowl tableside with a dramatic flourish. The flavors were deep, rich, and complex. The usual gooey cheese was not missed at all.
Green Goddess Soup was also a winner, as were the Red Chile Tempeh Tacos. Fans of Fern’s popular Indian Tacos (gone the way of the squash blossom hush puppies) will likely find this their new favorite. They’re really not tacos at all; it’s a soft, puffy bread they call “Indian Fry Bread” – sort of similar to a batura, if you’re familiar with Indian food. Crumbled tempeh in a red chili sauce is served on top, along with a side of slaw. Serving size was generous. This could easily substitute as a light entree, something to keep in mind if other menu choices seem too obscure or expensive for you.
Butternut Squash and Sage Agnolotti – Forget the fancy menu description, it’s sage ravioli stuffed with butternut squash in a light buttery sauce that contains pecans and mushroom “bacon.” The hit of the evening. Our omnivore foodie was in heaven.
Surf and Turf. We had to order this just for the experience. Vegan seitan steak with gravy (aka demi glace) and imitation scallops made of radishes. This was, quite simply, a work of art. It looked more like steak and scallops than steak and scallops! How did it taste? The omnivore foodie thought the scallops tasted like scallops, though the texture was still radish crunchy. I thought they tasted radishy as well, but to be fair, the foodie has probably had scallops at least once in the past 15 years, unlike myself. Everyone agreed the steak tasted like steak, especially with the demi glace (which there could have been a little more of; half the steak had to be eaten without). It cut like steak, too – everyone laughed when our server brought the humongous steak knife, but it was needed. The vegetables on the plate – sweet potato puree and “melted” leeks and mushrooms – were mostly just for decoration.
Moroccan Tangine – I’ve had Moroccan tangines before, a chickpea dish with apricots and raisins. This version had oranges and a very strong dose of cinnamon. It was, as our almost-vegan said, “like eating Christmas.” While we all agreed it was interesting taste experience, none of us would get it again.
Om Burger – The Fern classic, nominated by many in the VegCharlotte Awards for Best Veggie Burger. Definitely one of the best veggie burgers in Charlotte, and always a safe choice. It’s vegan, although it’s not marked as vegan on the menu because of the “cheese options.” Which makes no sense to me, as you have to pay extra if you want cheese. (Kudos to Fern, though – vegan cheddar and mozzarella cheese costs exactly the same as dairy cheddar and mozzarella cheese.)
Laughing Buddha Bowl – Another Fern classic. A bowl of rice, beans, greens, and vegetables. Specific ingredients change daily, depending on what’s fresh and in season. It’s hard to go wrong with this one and it’s another safe choice if you feel intimidated by the menu. One bit of advice to Fern, though: Presentation is everything on this one! I’ve seen it beautifully and artfully put together. I’ve also seen the ingredients just kind of jumbled into the bowl. Since many vegans often do something similar at home, a haphazard presentation just leaves us wondering why we paid to eat this in a restaurant. A thought that probably won’t occur to us if it arrives at the table looking like a work of art.
None of us had room for dessert, although the foodie debated going to the bathroom to purge so he could eat some more.
(I originally blogged this post for Keep Charlotte Boring … if you’re a Charlotte native or frequent visitor, please follow this blog to get your veggie restaurant reviews FIRST!)
Fern, Flavors From The Garden
Address: 1323 Central Avenue, Charlotte, NC
Tuesday – Thursday, 11:00 AM – 9:00 PM
Friday & Saturday 11:00 AM – 10:00 PM
Sundays 10:30 – 3:00 for Sunday Brunch