Posted Online: Jan. 08, 2013, 9:31 am
Time to veg out! Meat-free dishes get their due at LeClaire Cafe
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By Julie Barton
It's a Tuesday night in LeClaire and there is an eclectic crowd in the Crane & Pelican Cafe. Two women, who appear to be close friends, sit at a table having a glass of wine and quietly laughing. An older couple, clearly regulars, comes in and greets the owner. It's date night for the people at the table next to the large-paned windows, and they pore over the menu, one here for a vegetarian meal and the other a confirmed carnivore. Fortunately for them, it's vegan and vegetarian night at the Crane & Pelican, so everyone can leave sated and happy.
The Crane & Pelican Cafe, overlooking downtown LeClaire, opened in 2009 in the renovated Dawley House, former home of a riverboat captain and a mortuary. Vegan and vegetarian night started the first winter the Crane & Pelican was open because owner Mandy Harvey felt the Quad-Cities restaurant scene was lacking in vegan-friendly restaurants.
"I knew from the beginning that the Crane & Pelican was going to be a vegetarian- and vegan-friendly restaurant because I was aware of how hard it is for vegans to find places to eat out," explains Harvey. "I have several good friends who are vegan, and it was important to me that they could come eat at my restaurant. Most places don't even know what vegan means, much less how to prepare delicious vegan meals."
For those unfamiliar with the terms, vegetarians don't eat meat, and vegans abstain from eating animals and animal byproducts, including dairy and eggs. For some, this can pose a cooking challenge, but Crane & Pelican chef Bud Benson sees endless possibilities. "I love our eggplant lasagna with fresh tomatoes and basil," Benson mused. "Any and all varieties of vegan pizzas are also delicious. On the dessert end, honey and toasted pine nut tarts … mmm!"
Benson was hired as a cook during the holiday season of 2010, and now is head chef. He also tends a garden he uses as a source to fuel his edible creations, and finds using fresh-grown food from the garden and serving it to people as inspirational. His favorite vegan ingredient? The versatile tomato.
"I love tomatoes with all of their flavors, shapes and color," said Benson. "They're a great universal ingredient, and it's very difficult to find someone who doesn't appreciate fresh tomatoes used in any way in a dish."
Benson bases the vegan and vegetarian night menu on seasons and holidays, and he is dependent on what he can get that is fresh and local. He said it would surprise people to know that many of the ingredients used in the Crane & Pelican menu items come from a garden at the Crane & Pelican, or from friends of the restaurant who sell them their produce, particularly during spring, summer and fall months.
On the menu that cool Tuesday night? A smooth and silky baked sweet potato soup, shepherd's pie with beans and a baked mashed potato and crisped bread-crumb crust, and a fabulous slice of pumpkin pie with a nondairy whipped cream on top. Regular menu items, including meat dishes, also were available.
Several standard Crane & Pelican menu items, including corn fritters with a chipotle sauce and stuffed dates, first appeared on their vegan and vegetarian night menus and became crowd favorites that stuck.
"We have developed a very loyal following of people who aren't necessarily vegan, but people who like delicious and healthy meals," explained Harvey. "It's a challenge to cook vegan, but we enjoy researching new recipes and techniques."
When opening the Crane & Pelican, Harvey said her vision was to create a "comfort food" cafe where all of the food is made from scratch, and where good, affordable, local food is offered. She didn't want to venture into fine dining, but to instead have options everyday people could enjoy, including her vegan friends, and to offer the elusive gathering place that suits their needs.
Said Harvey, "We have several groups who come to every vegan and vegetarian night, including families with vegans and meat eaters who don't get to eat out together much. Here at the Crane & Pelican, the carnivores can get a great, locally-raised steak, and the vegans can get a delicious three-course meal."
For more information on the Crane & Pelican vegan and vegetarian nights at the Crane & Pelican, visit craneandpelican.com.