If we were to conduct a poll of the most appetizing vegetables, it's unlikely that cauliflower would show up anywhere near the top 10. The oddly shaped, lumpy white vegetable looks a bit like broccoli's albino stepchild (excluding certain handsome heirloom varieties), and is often treated about as well. Often steamed to the point of mushiness, even a generous dousing with butter or cheese can't save it. But something strange is happening in Echo Park, and it has nothing to do with the latest '80s-video-game-themed art gallery slash event space.
If Santa Monica's Daily Pint hosts a beer church that is all stained glass and chanting monks, Mohawk Bend is a televangelist's dream, a sprawling new megachurch with a swinging choir of more than 65 California tap handles, and a different guest brewery playing screaming lead guitar every month. But perhaps Mohawk Bend's greatest feat is one of transubstantiation — turning cauliflower into vegan buffalo wings.
If you didn't know you had ordered cauliflower, the plate's appearance at your table wouldn't give you any clues. Before you is a hefty pile of lumpy fried objects covered in electric red sauce; its closest visual counterpart may be Orange Chicken. Accompanied by the dollop of creamy sauce and celery stalks, though, it is clear that the visual thrust is buffalo. Once you actually dive in, it doesn't take long to find out that things are not exactly as they appear — and the difference is for the better. The cauliflower is fried until perfectly crisp, effectively mimicking the texture of well-cooked chicken wings and eliminating the hassle of bones.
The buffalo sauce is punchy, with the right amount of vinegar and a spicy hit. It's a physical dish. The celery doesn't add much beyond color, and the accompanying sauce is mostly just for texture, a sort of bland cream with mysterious vegan chunks in it that does a little to cut the spice. But it is the cauliflower that matters. The dish is a wonderful surprise — the vegetable made new, nearly unrecognizable.
Red Hill's take is perhaps more chefly and certainly more subtle, though they too opt to fry the cauliflower. Instead of a bright red makeover, though, this cauliflower is simply touched up with oregano, pine nuts and oil placed carefully atop a swath of a gentle chile aioli. The spices are delicate and well thought out, and the dish is a lovely combination of flavors. Yes, you can taste the cauliflower, and believe it or not it is delicious.
In the hands of owner Jason Michaud, cauliflower is a vegetable of distinction and class, but it is not at all too lofty for the casual eater. This dish is elegant, nice and well designed, but with plenty of down-to-earth touches (chile aioli) that keep it pleasant and enjoyable.
Red Hill and its cauliflower are perhaps not the kind of thing you'd expect in the up-and-coming Echo Park, sharing a parking lot with Little Caesar's and Walgreen's, just across the street from a still ungentrified minimall and the House of Spirits. But then again, also across Echo Park Avenue is AYC, the Grill 'Em All truck often serves in front of that same Wallgreen's, and the Gold Room now is regularly full of mustachioed youths. Red Hill's nice wooden tables, solid beer and wine list, creative menu, dim lighting and open kitchen may not be so out-of-place after all.
Red Hill's cauliflower turns out to be quite the appropriate symbol of the restaurant itself, an excellent choice for an evening out whether you're from the new Echo Park or the old. At Mohawk, too, the cauliflower could be seen as symbolic — a long-barren space transformed into an upscale, vegan-friendly pub and an ugly-duckling vegetable reinvented as an elevated, vegan version of a bar classic.
Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook. The author doesn't really tweet, but if you're into that sort of thing you can follow him @SemNeb.