Restaurant Review: Lan Café

Lan Café
342 East 6th Street
(between 1st Avenue and 2nd Avenue)
East Village, Manhattan

Vegiboys Rating (3/4)

As the sole representative of Vietnamese cuisine for the NYC vegetarian restaurant scene, Lan Caf̩ deserves consideration from any vegi-friendly visitors to the East Village. The restaurant follows the flavors and ingredients of southern Vietnamese cooking, relying on a wide variety of fresh vegetables, faux seafood-based recipes, liberal application of aromatic herbs, and noticeable French influences. The food is distinctive Рabsolutely unique from many of the better known cuisines from that region of the world, setting it apart from the plethora of Asian restaurants in the neighborhood (and from the many vegetarian Asian restaurants in the city).

A lack of curb appeal unfortunately appears to be hurting the restaurant’s ability to capture the random passerby, but the interior’s hole-in-the-wall décor offers just enough kitsch to make the space comfortably hip (like the fruit-print shower curtain separating out the entry from the dining room). We also appreciate that attention to good feng shui dictates many of their interior design choices (like oddly placed mirrors and lucky charm-filled foliage).

Our table for the evening was attended by a rotating band of kind and quiet staff that all appeared communally responsible for any front-of-the-house or kitchen tasks on an as-needed basis.

To drink, Brian found the lemonade among the best encountered in a restaurant: noticeably fresh, perfectly sweetened, and nicely apportioned. I chose a blooming chrysanthemum tea that was both beautiful and flavorful (Brian found it too sweet, but I very much enjoyed the flavor).

As an appetizer, our vegetarian shrimp salad included shredded green papaya, carrot, onion, peanut, lime, and chili paste, though it was the addition of mint that drew the flavors together and created an outstandingly refreshing dish. An accompaniment of rice chips had a pleasantly neutral taste (unlike the commonly encountered seaweed-flavored rice crisps).

As my entr̩e, I went the French colonial route with a baguette p̢t̩. The baguette was perfectly continental (simple and hard Рnot at all stale or chewy), and the p̢t̩ involved cinnamon-flavored slices of a tofu-like concoction (the actual composition was a mystery to us). Toppings of basic vegetables and cilantro helped to round out this interesting sandwich.

Brian’s grilled lemongrass seitan lay on top of a deep bowl of rice vermicelli, bean sprouts, and shredded lettuce. The seitan mimicked ham, with a sweet and smoky flavor that left an anise aftertaste. Carrots, shallots, cucumber, and peanut all added to the flavor of the dish, but it was the presence of mint that once again really brought the plate to a higher level of deliciousness for us.

We had hoped to try their Vietnamese jellies for dessert, but alas, the kitchen had run out. We went with a mung bean cake instead, which was produced off-site and served to us in full packaging (though the package label did help us to prepare for the banana-flavored filling). We would have loved to try a house-made dessert, but for what it was, the cake tasted good.

Overall, at $21.50 each, the meal was a relative bargain, giving us a good quantity of food for the price, made an even stronger value by the uniqueness of the dishes.

Surrounded by the restaurants of 1st Avenue, and with a sports bar restaurant next door, Lan Café is unfortunately a bit lost in the sea of East Village eateries. Lan deserves more attention than it receives, and with the city’s only fully vegi-friendly Vietnamese menu, should be on the list of places to visit for any urban vegetarian.

Food (3/4)

Atmosphere & Service

Value (3/4)

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