In almost every way, being vegan is immeasurably easier than it was when Katie + first eschewed animal products back in the mid-nineties. In our rural Virginia college town, there were only a handful of restaurants that catered to vegetarians or vegans back then and, though some of them still hold a special place in my heart, there wasn’t exactly a wealth of culinary choice. Likewise, back then, an average meal for us consisted of Fantastic Foods falafel mix or a Boca Burger with a slice of bright orange, plasticine Tofutti Soy Cheese. But these days, even outside of large metropolitan centers like New York, vegan options in restaurants and chains like Whole Foods have made healthy, cruelty-free foods more commonplace than ever.
But we have a legitimate problem that sometimes makes vegan eating a hard knock life for the two of us—somewhere in the past sixteen years, we got real picky. Alas, we’ve been lucky enough to eat at many a fine restaurant and have gotten to be damn good cooks, so we simply can no longer abide mediocre food that happens to be vegan. And we’ve found that, while we wholeheartedly support the ideas driving vegan restaurateurs’ efforts, far too many either don’t have the culinary chops to consistently create enjoyable food or they rest too much on their laurels, assuming that vegans will eat at vegan restaurants and simply be happy to have the option to do so. Which is one reason we love supporting non-vegan establishments who make great food and are open to offering equally great vegan options.
The Carroll Gardens, ramen joint, Dassara, is such an establishment.
For anyone who isn’t already familiar with upper-scale, non-Cup-Noodles ramen, the curly wheat noodles and dishes involving them were brought over to the states from traditional Japanese culture, where ramen is usually served in a rich, hot broth with fresh + pickled vegetables. Dassara is a self-described “deli-style” ramen, pushing the envelope with modern food pairings and serving such non-traditional dishes as matzo ball ramen, derived from co-owner Josh Kaplan’s aunt’s recipe for the unleavened dumplings.
Kaplan, along with fellow co-owners, Justin DeSpirito + Lana Yang, opened Dassara this past August as first-time restaurateurs. But, other than noticing the positive effects of that—a striking abundance of creativity in the dishes and an eagerness + energy that shines through with both the menu + the warm, intimate space—you’d never guess any of them were new to the restaurant scene.
As DeSpirito told us, “vegan options are definitely something that we think about and have been trying to develop more of. We are constantly experimenting with our menu—with vegan and non-vegan food—and are trying to get the best of what we come up with in the rotation.” With their ever-evolving, rotating menu and delectable vegan sides and large dishes, we’d have to say they’re off to a superb start.
For our money, the star of the show is their mushroom ramen, featuring mixed wild mushrooms, fresh market greens, seaweed strips, scallions, and the richest, deepest, most flavorful mushroom broth we’ve ever had. We crave it weekly at least. If you order it though, be sure to let them know you want it vegan as it usually comes with a poached egg on top.
Dassara also offers a cold dish—sesame Szechuan noodles in a sesame sauce with Szechuan dressing, kimchi pickled vegetables and smoked tofu; a really lovely bean salad with green + yellow beans, edamame, yuba cracklins (deep-fried soy milk skin), corn + celery, tossed in sansho vinaigrette + served on a whipped silken tofu; a miso-eggplant dip with nori seaweed crisps; and—a farmer’s market favorite of ours—shishito peppers, pan-fried over high heat and served with ginger black vinegar. On that last one, be sure to again ask them to be made vegan—sans fish—and ask them to hold the ginger-scallion mayo. Vegan fillings are featured in their rotating bun specials from time-to-time too, so keep your eye out for those.
Justin also shared a brand new vegan dish they hope to premiere this week—a German-style potato salad with pickled seaweed and okra—”a kind of a German/Japanese combination, which has some precedent in traditional Japanese izakaya food.” We’ll take his word on that last bit and assume that it will be just as delicious as everything else we’ve had there.
Dassara is located at 271 Smith Street in Carroll Gardens between Sackett + Degraw Streets and the Bergen + Carroll Street stops on the F + G lines. They’re open from 5-11PM Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursday; 5PM to midnight Fridays + Saturdays; 5-10PM Sundays; and closed Tuesdays. Their bar is open late and brunch is served 11:30AM – 3PM on the weekend. In addition to all the great food, Dassara also has a nice casual wine list, good rotating draft beers, and an impressive menu of both alcoholic and non-alcoholic mixed drinks.
Pictured below, the mushroom ramen, vegan; their sesame Szechuan noodles; the bean salad; miso-eggplant dip; and the soon-to-premiere German-Japanese potato salad, presentation subject to change. All food photos courtesy of Dassara.