One of the first things that will strike you as you are seated at Red Bamboo is the intriguing and positively intoxicating scent of barbecue sauce.
It isn’t really that surprising, being that this West 4th eatery is a fusion of soul food and Asian cuisine. And really, in this zeitgeist of Asian-fusion restaurants, no ethnic combinations – no matter how far removed in hemispheres – appears to be untested.
Pan-Asian, Japanese and European, Chinese and French, Asian and Cuban, Hawaiian and Asian – it’s all well and good on paper, it usually tastes exactly as you’d imagine it to, and the price is usually more than you expected.
But at Red Bamboo you can truly find the unexpected. Not only is it a fusion of soul food and Asian cuisine – it’s a vegetarian haven.
None of these dishes are prepared with meat ingredients, be it mammal or fish, and if you are a well-disciplined vegan, there are plenty of non-dairy and non-animal products available.
Simply refer to their extensive list of appetizers. Among the diverse choices are edamame, fried soy fish sticks, “ocean flavored soy protein” otherwise known as vegan calamari – but for a true flavor shock, try the Caribbean Jerk Spiced Seitan. (Vegetarian vocabulary lesson: seitan is made from the gluten of wheat. Basically, it’s wheat with all the starch washed out.)
Marinated in a spiced molasses and lime-papaya juice dressing, it comes on two skewers, and looks like chicken. It really tastes like chicken. In fact, seasoned carnivores may ask “Wait – so this isn’t chicken?”
The entrees are just as assorted as the appetizers, with offerings of Unagi Don, Tandoori soy chicken, and with a slightly regionally-confusing soy Chicken Parmesan and soy beef or chicken quesadillas. But when in a supposed soul food spot, do as soul foodies do – try the Creole Soul Chicken.
Breaded with panko and seasoned to taste just like fried chicken, they appear to be simply upscale chicken nuggets.
Alongside are sweet corn mashed potatoes, steamed baby carrots, zucchini, and a mushroom gravy. And right in the middle sits a ramekin of the barbecue sauce – a beautiful experience for a vegetarian craving fried chicken sans the guilt.
Texture does not become a negative issue until the fully vegan dessert of Oreo cookie cheesecake. Though the drizzling of chocolate fudge and rainbow sprinkles is reminiscent of childhood sweets, this is not your mother’s famous cheesecake.
For one, it doesn’t taste like cheesecake. It doesn’t look or even have the texture of cheesecake either; it was difficult to run the fork through, much like ice cream cake. But of course, it wasn’t frozen. Who knew so many issues could arise from the simple omission of dairy and its creamy qualities?
Yet, if and when you are finally distracted from your plate of vegetarian bliss at Red Bamboo, take in the atmosphere. The décor is a based off a natural tone of reds, browns, and whites, and it is executed warmly rather than in a stark, modern fashion.
The exposed brick interior and wooden tables are homey and intimate. The place is usually packed, and though the conversation may be lively at times, it never reaches a discomfiting level.
Even more welcoming is the tab. With such a nearly Eden-like culinary awakening, you’d expect a hefty price, especially with the high-quality vegetarian ingredients that often cost you more in the grocery store than a couple pounds of pork or beef.
But a meal of an appetizer, two entrees, and dessert came to an agreeable $42, an average cost for a decent carnivorous dinner out on the town.
Though there were a few misses at Red Bamboo, as a whole it is a successful fusion of the truly unexpected, a guilt-free indulgence of long lost flavors, and ultimately, a place where a carnivore and a vegetarian can settle their seemingly irrefutable differences.
Red Bamboo140 W 4th St. (btwn 6th Ave. and Macdougal St)A, C, E, or F, V line to W 4th Station(212)260-1212www.redbamboo-nyc.com