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Non-Dairy 'Cheese' Was the Star of Lemon Tree's Vegan Valentine's Dinner

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Before the first course landed at Lemon Tree Co.'s Vegan Valentine's Dinner, the sandwich shop's Co-owner, Jasson Parra, addressed guests seated at a family-style table.

Eggplant lasagna on wild mushroom risotto was the dinner's main course. - LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson
  • Eggplant lasagna on wild mushroom risotto was the dinner's main course.
"The vegan and vegetarian community came out in droves for us from the very beginning," he said, referencing his shop's rocky start in the corner location that used to belong to Boise hotspot Bleubird. "...Thank you for coming out and supporting the Lemon Tree Company."

Indeed, the night of vegan, gluten-free dining starring dishes by Chef Christina Murray was billed as a four-hour edible thank you to Boise vegetarians. To make it happen required weeks of planning, creative substitutions (for example, Murray told the crowd about using aquafaba, the liquid from canned chickpeas, instead of egg whites for meringue) and an exhaustive search for local vegan wine (Parra settled on three reds from Sawtooth and a Riesling from Coiled, which all eschew animal-based filtering agents like fish bladders).

The Kula Connection's vegan mozzarella looked and tasted almost exactly like the real thing. - LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson
  • The Kula Connection's vegan mozzarella looked and tasted almost exactly like the real thing.
Then there was the question of non-dairy cheese. Murray's menu, which included artichoke crostini, caprese salad, eggplant lasagna with wild mushroom risotto, and a lemon tart, required some kind of plant-based "cheese" for three of its four courses. A recent falling out between Parra's supplier and the vegan cheese maker Violife had left him looking into other options, and he found The Kula Connection, a fledgling vegan cheese company co-owned and run by Boise local Michelle Russell.

Unfortunately, a power outage at Russell's temporary commercial kitchen (provided by Chef Lou of Westside Drive In) kept a large batch of her vegan mozzarella from setting in time for the big night. But she still showed up with samples of three different cheeses—pub cheddar cheese spread with chives, aged cashew cheese wheels and a few balls of mozzarella that had been prepared before the outage.



Caprese salad (Miyokos mozzarella, tomato, basil, olive oil, balsamic reduction) was the dinner's second course. - LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson
  • Caprese salad (Miyokos mozzarella, tomato, basil, olive oil, balsamic reduction) was the dinner's second course.
"I have a whole [vegan and gluten-free] product line I'm trying to launch," Russell told the crowd as it eagerly scooped cheddar onto rice crackers and cut slices from the brown cashew wheel. "The cheese is step one."

Russell's mozzarella—cool, creamy and with the ideal melt-in-your-mouth texture—was a near-perfect facsimile. And even though Murray ended up using Miyokos moz for the Caprese salad on account of the power outage, it was that tasting that set the tone for a night peppered by the constant refrain of "I can't believe this is vegan" up and down the table.

Chef Christina Murray was the mastermind behind Lemon Tree's Vegan Valentine's Dinner. - LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson
  • Chef Christina Murray was the mastermind behind Lemon Tree's Vegan Valentine's Dinner.
From a meat- and dairy-eater's perspective, the meal wasn't a perfect mirror to what it would have been if any  ngredient had been welcome. Murray's homemade almond ricotta, which was stuffed into eggplant roll-ups, was on point in flavor but had a fibrous texture that gave away its chief ingredient, and the lemon tart's gluten-free crust was a bit salty and challenging to cut. But the dinner did have its brilliant moments, and overall was near the pinnacle of plant-based dining. Murray's wild mushroom risotto—made with, of all things, organic Two Buck Chuck (a vegan option)—was a standout, and the artichoke crostini using Gluten Free Galaxy toast was as delicious as it was attractive, served in a swirl of basil oil and dotted with edible flowers.

Though the Valentine's Day feast marked just the fourth upscale dinner for Lemon Tree (there were still some kinks to be worked out, like long waits between courses), Parra has his eye on many more plant-based soirees to come. He even floated the idea of a vegan or vegetarian supper club—a first, he said, for the Treasure Valley as far as he knows.   
The Valentine's Day dinner was served on Lemon Tree's upper floor, and cost $85 per person. - LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson
  • The Valentine's Day dinner was served on Lemon Tree's upper floor, and cost $85 per person.