Ah, the plight of the vegetarian. Even in this day and age, scrumptious grub options for those who don’t dig the flesh can still be scant. Everyone else at the table will be tucking into savory, juicy, chunky, flame-licked, and skillet-seared succulence, while the pitiful vegetarian sits there with his microwaved veggie burger getting cold while he’s trying to get the server’s attention to bring every condiment in the kitchen in the hope that the combination of them all will make his beans on a bun taste like something special.
When a restaurant goes to the trouble of concocting a dish that a vegetarian can order without sounding like a finicky invertebrate, you can imagine the late nights spent in the kitchen by the masterminds of the menu poring over sketches of recipe ideas, trying to remember the names and compatibilities of elusive, exotic spices. The gesture amounts to something much more than simple accommodation or consideration for the selective herbivore; the act is magnanimous if not philanthropic.
“Trying to cater to vegetarians is difficult as a forethought as opposed to an afterthought,” said The Shebeen Pub and Braai owner and chef Walter Slawski. “We tried to come up with dishes that make it interesting and exciting to be vegetarian or vegan. People are constantly requesting more vegetarian options, more vegan options.”
The Shebeen, which opened in 2003, just celebrated its 10th anniversary. The restaurant grew out of Slawski’s catering outfit, The Catering Outfit, which has been servicing Charlottesville clientele since Slawski was a UVA economics undergrad.
I popped into The Shebeen for dinner last week with no agenda in mind. Under the menu heading “Vegetarian,” two enticing offerings begged to be given their chances. I went for the sadza cakes and talked my companion into ordering the West African ground nut stew.
The sadza cakes are parmesan polenta cakes topped with a flavor blast of stir-fried vegetables, ladled over with a lemongrass beurre blanc.
“It’s kind of like making grits,” Slawski, who grew up in Zimbabwe and visited South Africa often, said of the sadza, the Zimbabwean white maize version of the universal starchy staple, polenta. The finely ground meal is boiled in water, seasoned with salt, and laced with butter and parmesan cheese. This creamy mash is spread on sheets to cool and set up. When it’s serving time, it is cut into squares that go into a 500-degree oven and, “if everything is done right,” said Slawski, “come out with an almost crispy top.” While the cakes crisp in the oven, eggplant, sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, sugar snaps, and shiitake and portobello mushrooms are getting sautéed in oil with salt and pepper. Wine and butter with a lemongrass kicker are also getting cooked down for the beurre blanc. When it’s all plated, it’s an extravagant combination of flavors that is rich and deep but with a light touch. The polenta is a terrific texture to balance the stir-fry and gives it a hearty bottom. The beurre sauce soaks into the fluffy cakes, infusing them with condensed flavor and nicely glazes the crispy fresh snap peas and intense sun-dried tomatoes. It’s good chow.
“It’s one of our most popular dishes,” said Slawski. “You get people coming in who are not vegetarian ordering it.”
The West African ground nut stew is a huge portion of tempura-fried vegetables with okra and kale, spiced with coriander and ginger, topped with crushed ground peanuts, and served over yellow rice. It is inspired in part by a dish Slawski remembers from his childhood. “The ground nut stew is something we ate growing up,” he said. “A ground nut is just a peanut. So, there’s a lot of protein there.”
There is a much more understated flavor in this dish and for those addicted to over-spiced cuisine and high octane hot sauces, a touch of a hot pepper-based condiment could be in order.
“African food, typically, is mostly vegetarian bland—the indigenous food anyway,” said Slawski.
The rest of the menu is a madcap tour of Zimbabwe and South African-inspired dishes, covering it all from steak and lamb to peri-peri (an African bird’s eye chili rub) chicken and several seafood choices. “There’s a tremendous amount of Indian influence on the food of South Africa,” said Slawski. “There’s Dutch and Malay influence. I’m very passionate about my childhood and growing up there and the experiences I had and the foods that I ate.”