Tree House Vegetarian Restaurant
A fresh concept is putting down roots in South Grands eclectic dining scene.
The catchphrase for most plant-based dishes is, “You won’t miss the meat.” But the gluten? The dairy and eggs? The heat from cooking? Is there really a dish that can pull off delicious with this much “missing” stuff?
Yes, as it turns out—quite a few of them. From the carrot-ginger gazpacho to the banana-chocolate torte, Tree House‘s chefs have accepted owner Chi “Bay” Tran’s challenge of creating vegetarian cuisine with flair and flavor. They’ve also done her one better by taking some of their dishes to the next level: gluten-free, vegan, raw and very satisfying.
Tran’s commitment to quality is apparent everywhere, from the interior design by local green-friendly firm Space Architecture to the handcrafted bars by Mwanzi Company on the first and second floors. Having grown up in the industry—her family owns Mekong, just down the street from Tree House—Tran has imagined herself in this role since she played restaurant as a girl. But instead of relying on genetic predisposition and luck, she earned business experience and a degree in the culinary field before putting her vision to the test.
Tran’s top two team members in the kitchen—Head Chef John Intrieri and Pastry Chef Victoria Lopez—bring a bit of Latin American flavor to the table. Consider the pan de queso. Intrieri’s fond memories of his Colombian grandmother’s version helped Lopez perfect the feather-light biscuits of tapioca flour and queso fresco.
There’s food fusion as well. Lopez took flan, a classic dessert in her Puerto Rican family, and flavored it with the chicory coffee Tran loves (thanks to her Vietnamese heritage). Even a traditional comfort food like deviled eggs gets celebrity treatment from Intrieri. His farm-fresh version includes cucumbers and celery amidst the whipped yolks filling the halved eggs—then he tops it with microgreens, paprika and ichimi togarashi, a Japanese chile powder.
Intrieri is so determined to avoid pretension that he barely uses words like “microgreens,” let alone “tapas” or “umami” (another Japanese term, this time for a mouthfeel that’s often described as savory). Yet he nails it with the wild mushroom pate? served as part of the charcuterie platter. Eventually, Tree House intends to carry the meat metaphor further by adding its own smoker out back.
When asked if she has a favorite dish on the menu, Lopez is quick to offer up the banana-chocolate torte, a clever concoction that deserves to become her signature dish. She adds a filling of smooth, creamy ground cashews to a crust of almonds, raw dates and coconut oil. The dessert achieves chocolate two ways, both vegan and raw, but with very different textures. One uses cocoa powder and ground cashews, the other cocoa powder and coconut oil.
Bar manager Billy Holley has a background in both wines and bartending, but what excites him most about Tree House is the opportunity to let his creative energy flow. Case in point: Roots, a martini based on a beet-ginger simple syrup. Even more unique is his choice to add the flavors of radish and raw ginger by shaking the veggies in with the gin, ice and syrup.
But Holley doesn’t always stray from the classics. His pisco sour, for example, is a deceptively subtle way of delivering Peruvian grape brandy with a bit of sugar, lemon juice and angostura bitters. And for brunch later this summer, he will add a classic Bloody Mary to the tomatillo-based version he calls the Santa Maria.
Holley’s wine savvy comes from the sales trenches, so his short list of bottles and by-the-glass selections is thoughtfully chosen to pair with the vegetarian fare. Beers are all from local craft brewers.
Foot traffic along South Grand is brisk, and the 35-seat, street-side patio is prime people-watching territory. With seating inside for nearly 50 and an upstairs space that will accommodate 30 more when the build-out phase is complete, Tran has left her sapling of a restaurant plenty of room to branch out.
Photo credit: Jennifer Silverberg