Order this macaroni & cheese. Seriously.
For those of us in culinarily mixed-families, something usually has to give. That’s why it’s such a joy to find a restaurant like Vital Dining with lots of options for everyone from carnivore to vegan. And with a vegan chef in the kitchen, there’s no wondering if the vegan dishes are genuinely free of animal products.
It’s probably because I didn’t expect the dish to be vegan that I still dream about the macaroni and cheese at Vital Dining. Made with cashews for the creamy texture, a hint of curry sets it apart from the usual pasta and “cheese” dishes elsewhere. My dining companion and I were sampling several items at this Bloomfield Avenue eatery, so we felt like we shouldn’t finish every dish, yet we kept sneaking bites of the mac & cheese until it was gone. It’s an instant classic!
Way back when in Brooklyn, I used to frequent the wonderful (now shuttered) Brawta Cafe on Atlantic Avenue. As a vegetarian, there wasn’t much on the menu for me, but I loved the flavors in the Roti and Ital Stew. Now, with Vital Dining in town, I can enjoy the vibrant Jamaican flavors as reimagined by Chef Kwame Williams. As a vegan who is also an accomplished chef, he understands both the parameters and delicious possibilities of the cuisine.
Every meal begins with a complimentary sample of black-eyed pea hummus and plantain chips. Don’t hold back on these! It’s the perfect tease for the rest of your meal. If you’re looking for more appetizers, and you want a little heat, the Callaloo Dip is a perfect choice. It’s creamy, spicy, and served warm with whole wheat chips. Here’s a welcome tip: all the soups at Vital Dining are vegan — no need to ask about the stock!
There are several leafy green salads to choose from, but I tried the Stuffed Avocado, found in the salad section of the menu. More of an appetizer than a salad, the combination of the crunchy almond filling, creamy avocado, and spicy pico de gallo balances perfectly. I wanted to get all three flavors in every bite. The almond stuffing also appears in some dishes as a garnish. Wonderful.
We tried two dinner entrees: the Curried Cauliflower and the Cassava Dumplings. Both have unique flavors, and make a satisfying meal. The cauliflower dish is served with coconut rice and sautéed kale, both of which defy being rote sides with their balanced flavors.The cauliflower is perfectly cooked, and the curry sauce is vibrant without overpowering the other flavors. You’ll be using the rice to soak up any remaining sauce.
The Cassava Dumplings, a favorite with co-owner Nataki Williams, are an elegantly plated and colorful dish. The dumplings are placed over a light and tasty sun-dried tomato puree which serves as the perfect foil to the crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside dumplings. Together with the savory spinach and stewed peppers and onions, the dish is a treat for all the senses. Highly recommended.
When choosing sides, there is a fantastic variety depending on whether you want sweet, savory, or a little of both. Naturally, the swoon-worthy macaroni and cheese is a must-try. The okra fries (which are one of the options as a lunch entrée side) are delightful, crispy, and will be gobbled up by the whole table. Also recommended are the smashed yams, sautéed greens (kale or spinach), and sweet plantains for a special treat.
Jamaican Carrot Juice, vegan style
The drinks at Vital Dining are made with the same care and thoughtfulness as the dishes. The house made Ginger Beer, Sorrel, and Vital Lemonade are all fantastic. Each has a distinct personality that resists overpowering the taste buds in order to prove its authenticity. The drinks menu includes healthful options like elixirs and smoothies, fresh juices that combine popular fruits and vegetables.
The most interesting drink is a reboot of Jamaican Carrot Juice, traditionally made with condensed milk. To keep the creamy sweetness of the original, the Chef swapped almond milk for the condensed milk and made sure to keep the sweet and spicy balance of the carrots and nutmeg. Don’t miss a chance to enjoy this treat!
Vital Dining is all in the family. Chef Kwame Williams and Nataki Williams have been running the restaurant for the last year with the intention of bringing healthy, delicious food to the community. The variety and quality is sure to bring vegans to the table again and again.
Vital Dining: 387 Bloomfield Ave., Montclair, NJ 07042 • Tel: 973.655.9500