Before opening The Fiction Kitchen in January in downtown Raleigh, Caroline Morrison and Siobhan Southern thoroughly tested the waters.
Wisely so. It was their first restaurant, after all, and they planned to offer an exclusively vegetarian, mostly vegan menu in a region that hasn’t historically been fertile ground for such ventures.
So for nearly three years they served pop-up meals – notably a series of vegan brunches at The Pinhook, a private bar in Durham. Because they catered these events out of a borrowed kitchen, they called their experiment The Fiction Kitchen.
By the time Morrison and Southern were ready to open their brick-and-mortar restaurant, The Fiction Kitchen had won such a loyal following that it was a natural choice for a name.
After sampling liberally from the seasonally changing offering that Morrison and Southern are now turning out of their actual – albeit tiny – kitchen, I can think of several more reasons why The Fiction Kitchen is an apt name.
You may find it hard to believe, for starters, that the soy protein “chicken” in The Fiction Kitchen’s take on chicken and waffles is not in fact a boneless, skinless breast. Even allowing for the fact that the vegan Belgian waffle is not as light and fluffy as a traditional waffle, the dish is nonetheless a convincing one.
Nor is it a big stretch, when you bite into a tinga taco, to imagine that you’re in a taqueria. Granted, the pale green of the nopales tortilla is a giveaway, as is the quinoa that dots an accompanying bowl of cumin-and cinnamon-tinged black beans. But the meaty, well-spiced shreds spilling out of the tacos are on the money, and the coarse slaw that’s piled on top supplies a delightfully crunchy contrast.
Sashimi tofu probably won’t fool you into thinking that you’re eating fish. But the supple texture is right, and the presentation – sesame-crusted cubes of lightly seared tofu, dyed with beet juice to a fetching salmon pink, accompanied by house-pickled ginger, wasabi and a small salad – will surely scratch a sushi bar itch.
You might find yourself wondering whether the onion fritters, served with a small ramekin of agave-sweetened “butter,” are more like Southern hushpuppies or Indian pakoras. Either way, you’ll no doubt find them addictive.
As you’re perusing the culinary adventure tale that is The Fiction Kitchen’s menu, by no means should you skip the chapter titled “Farmers’ Market Plate.” Even if the cast of characters (recently a gastronomic love triangle involving a barbecue seitan slider, molasses-glazed baby carrots and fried young okra pods) has changed by the time you read it, you can bet it will have a happy ending.
There’s nothing faux – but everything to like – about a North Carolina grit cake paired with a charred corn and tomato salad. Same goes for the locavore salad, which recently showcased ripe watermelon and crisp romaine dressed in a basil vinaigrette. That is, unless you substitute cashew “cheese” for the goat cheese crumbled over the top. Unless you’re a vegan, I’d stick with the goat cheese.
Rest assured, however, that even dedicated carnivores will find that The Fiction Kitchen’s charms far outnumber its shortcomings. That applies to desserts, too. For every local peach sorbet that comes up short on peach flavor, there’s a delightful olive oil peach cake. And a peanut butter-chocolate icebox pie that serves up sweet comfort by the creamy slice. And a chocolate ganache truffle pie with salted caramel that – yes, even in this house of wholesomeness – can only be described as sinful.
Throw in a bar with six local brews on tap and a seasonal cocktail list that, like the menu, showcases local flavors (Troy & Sons moonshine and blackberry jam, anyone?). Add an enthusiastic (if occasionally overwhelmed) wait staff and a warmly inviting setting that’s equal parts retro and hipster chic.
It’s no wonder that a strictly vegetarian restaurant with a strong selection of vegan and gluten-free options (which are helpfully noted on the menu) is packing them in every night.
That’s right, even on a weeknight. Like the Wednesday night my wife and I got there a little before 6 p.m., having been warned about the crowds (and the restaurant’s no-reservations policy). The dining room was already full, and we were lucky to snag the last two seats at the bar before the waiting list started. And that’s no fiction.
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