Supported by the Channing Murray Foundation (the U of I campus community center founded on the principles of Unitarian Universalism), The Red Herring is a vegan restaurant that serves lunch on weekdays, and features a changing cultural dinner each Wednesday evening from 5–8 p.m. Last week, Rebecah and I braved the chilly eve to partake of some vegan Korean food.

It’s hard to offer up a critique of vegan food as it relates to an "authentic" experience of a particular culture or cuisine, and I won’t do so here. It’s not useful to compare veal schnitzel to a seitan schnitzel, because there is no way they will ever be the same in flavor or texture. If you remove the animal product from a dish, you’re not going to be able to manufacture an exact replacement; therefore, all animal-less dishes will be different than their animal-based counterpart. My approach to the vegan cultural dinners is instead an open-minded one in which I am able to explore some flavors of a particular culture or cuisine.

The restaurant is located in the basement of the building; the entrance is dimly lit with a warm, yellow light, making it seem like you’re entering into a cavern of a secret society (of vegans!), or a very conspicuous speakeasy. Upon entering, you’re met with a wipeboard announcing that night’s dinner menu; to your left is the cash register. For the Wednesday night cultural dinners, there isn’t a choice of food options; when you order, you order a plate. Each plate is $7 ($7.65 with tax), and you pay for your meal at the register. You then sit down, and expediters bring your plate of food to you, but everything else (forks, knives, napkins, water) is serve yourself.

The announcements and promotional materials for the vegan cultural dinners promise live entertainment, but this was not the case on Korean night. I also attended the German dinner a few weeks ago (see photo of seitan schnitzel and accompaniments above), and they did indeed play some German music, but there weren’t any live performers. On Korean night, there were neither live entertainment nor Korean music. Instead, the background music was Top 40 radio or something similarly uninteresting. The seating area is a decent size, and when it’s crowded with diners, it feels cozy, robust, and lively. There are tables and booths, and a large community table for the socially brave. It’s hard to imagine live entertainment in the space, if only because it seems as though it would be really loud and overcrowded. Nevertheless, I do hope they bring in some live music or cultural performers.

 

 

 

While the cuisine of each vegan cultural dinner is predetermined, the menu for each week is a surprise. Korean night’s menu consisted of kimchi, jasmine rice, and daenjang chigae (Korean tofu stew). The stew was served warm, and consisted of a clear broth with vegetables and chunks of tofu. The broth was a miso base, providing a rich umami to an otherwise thin ‘stew’. As a fully practicing omnivore, I found the stew to be fairly flavorful. The tofu was cut in bite-sized chunks and provided substantial heft to the stew; there isn’t anything worse than a lump of tasteless mush. I was left wanting a bit more in the way of stew stuff: I only had a few cuts of carrot, and didn’t taste or feel many potatoes or green chilies. There were plenty of pieces of turnip greens and seaweed, though. It was well seasoned in the way of saltiness, but could have used a shock of acid (which is why the plate was served with kimchi, I suppose).

The rice was perfectly cooked, which I greatly appreciate. I have to give some props, too, to whoever did the plating. The serpentine shape of the rice formed a barrier keeping the stew from mingling with the kimchi. It was then possible to move the rice into the kimchi or the stew as I desired. The kimchi was really tasty. It was served cold, and the veggies were crisp. It was flavorful and spicy, without overpowering the taste and integrity of each component. The spice was a welcome contrast to the smooth, softly flavored and textured stew.

As a term, "red herring" refers to something used as a diversion to detract from the central issue. As a restaurant, The Red Herring reroutes omnivores to a path of vegetable consumption, if only for one meal. I don’t foresee anyone being moved to veganism after consuming a singular meal from Red Herring, but I do hope that omnivorous diners take a moment to recognize that vegetables can be flavorful and satisfying. Perhaps some of these diners will return a second or third time, and the conversation with flexitarianism will have been initiated.

For $7.65 (give or take a soda), Red Herring’s cultural dinners are an affordable way to try out the flavor profiles of different cultures. And, as a bonus, you don’t have to eat animals you may find less than appetizing, or straight up weird. I’m looking forward to tasting future cultural dinners; it seems that some cuisines may be easier to veganize than others. With limited and often uncreative restaurant options for vegetarians and vegans, Red Herring is a haven. For meat eaters…you may be a little unsatisfied, but you can always have second dinner. (JH)

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You’d be surprised what passes for vegetarian cuisine at otherwise decent restaurants.

Actually, I take that back: you probably wouldn’t. Vegetarian options at most non-vegetarian restaurants look pretty much exactly like this:

  1. Black bean burgers
  2. Salads (the ones without bacon)
  3. Portabella burgers, sandwiches, and/or sliders
  4. Ice water

As a (mostly) devoted vegetarian for the past ten years, I’ve eaten hundreds, if not thousands, of all of the above. Which is why I was downright ecstatic about Red Herring’s re-opening—with its new vegan theme—this fall. I love black bean burgers as much as the next person (come to think of it, probably more), but it’s great to walk into a restaurant that knows how to cook tofu and acknowledges vegetables other than the portabella.

Red Herring’s vegan cultural dinners are a great way to get acquainted with this local gem. The concept of these cultural dinners is that they’ll dish up one three-dish, single-plate option based on a different national cuisine each week for $7. There is also supposed to be a “cultural” element to these meals—i.e. music, performance, or something else from the country being featured to accompany the dining—but I’ve been to two of these meals and have yet to see it.

Jess and I checked out the Korean-themed dinner last week, and I’m happy to report that there were no black beans or portabellas in sight. Dinner was kimchi, rice (possibly sushi rice?) topped with black sesame seeds, and a tofu and seaweed entree. The kimchi, which was made primarily from cabbage, was crisp and savory and was, in my opinion, the highlight of the meal. The rice was well prepared: the kernels weren’t split or soggy, but they weren’t too firm either. The sesame seeds on top were a nice touch.

I was neutral on the tofu dish: I thought it was tasty but a bit under-seasoned. One perennial complaint about vegetarian food is that it has no flavor; this is ridiculous in my opinion, but this dish didn’t offer a rousing response to the opposition. I would have preferred something quite a bit spicier, though I realize that one drawback to offering a single option is that the foods needs to be mild enough to appeal to many palates.

I found the plating to be quite elegant, particularly how the rice was arranged in a curving pattern down the center of the plate. And the hot spiced cider I had with my meal was perfect for the start of November.

In terms of atmosphere, the Red Herring offers a funky, relaxed vibe that’s nostalgic for the 70s. The décor is colorful and humble, and the space is vibrant, especially given the fact that the Red Herring is housed in a basement. The tables and booths are spread out enough to allow for private conversation over dinner even when the restaurant is busy. The Red Herring is mostly cafeteria-style, so expect to grab your own drink and silverware and bus your own plate, but (unlike at lunch time) staff will bring you your dinner when it’s ready.

Overall, the Red Herring offers a tasty, healthy, and damn cheap vegan dinner on Wednesday nights. The meal wasn’t perfect, and the Red Herring isn’t fine dining, but it’s exciting nonetheless to have a fully vegan restaurant (re)open its doors in C-U. Here’s hoping it gets even better. (RP)

The Red Herring is located at 1209 West Oregon Street in Urbana. They're open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Wednesday evenings, 5–8 p.m.  for their vegan cultural dinners. Visit their Facebook page for more information.