REVIEW WRITTEN BY LEN LEAR
For Digital First Media
My wife and I were vegetarians for several years, mostly because we love animals and secondarily for health reasons. In 1982 I became a former vegetarian because I was offered a part-time job writing restaurant reviews for the now-defunct Main Line Chronicle. At the time I was unemployed and broke since my full-time job as a daily columnist disappeared late in 1981 when my employer, the Philadelphia Journal, closed its doors after a bitter union-management conflict.
Thus, I was willing to accept any writing assignment and could not afford to turn down the restaurant review offer, even though I knew it would conflict with our vegetarian lifestyle. For the first several restaurants I wrote about, my wife and I continued to eschew all meat dishes until the editor finally pointed out that I had to start eating some meat dishes in restaurants for obvious reasons, or else.
Since then I have eaten meat every once in a while as part of a restaurant article, which certainly does give one a chance to appreciate a full-bodied red wine. But vegetarianism has become much more mainstream since 1982, and restaurants like Vedge in center city Philadelphia have proven that vegetarian dishes can be just as rich in flavor and texture as those that are meat-based (and, of course, they are much healthier).
The vegetarian restaurant Flora opened on Nov. 11 last year at 307 Old York Road in Jenkintown, a tiny space formerly occupied by a takeout/catering operation called Taste the Difference. Owner Jose Vargas previously owned restaurants in Mayfair, Richboro, New Hope, Chalfont and Elkins Park. In Jenkintown he also owns two other tiny BYOBs, Leila’s Bistro and Forcella. He has several partners in Flora.
Dan Brightcliffe, who worked his way through La Salle University while waiting tables at Leila’s Bistro, is one of the partners at Flora as well as the host and sole server. “We made a conscious decision not to serve meat or even use any meat substitutes (like seitan),” said the tall, bearded Brightcliffe. “So far the restaurant is doing well. We’ve had a good amount of return customers and people from outside the Jenkintown area. One thing that surprised me is how many non-vegans/vegetarians have come in to try us out. We have had a 50-50 split in our customers between vegans/vegetarians and meat eaters.”
Flora’s chef Max Hosey has an extensive culinary background which includes several restaurants in San Francisco and a stint at Mica, Chip Roman’s upscale jewel in Chestnut Hill. As the youngest of five children, he had to learn early to fend for himself in the kitchen. His biggest vegan influence was chef Kevin Dunn, of the New England Culinary Institute, who was diagnosed with heart disease at a young age and learned that “the ultimate preventive measure regarding heart disease was with a plant-based diet.”
Some customers are surprised at how full they feel at the end of a meal at Flora. Since it is plant-based food, however, it is high in fiber, which can make you feel full without eating the usual huge portions in American restaurants.
At Flora one can have a three-course dinner for $35 or four courses for $40. Each of the courses has three choices. We were delighted with everything we tasted, although there were some long delays between courses since there was only one chef and one server.
Two entrees which absolutely blew us away were the wild mushroom stew with pommes Anna (an ancient French dish with potatoes, cheese, butter and cream) and root vegetables and a divine, rich sauce; and “Sister Maria’s” tamales with chipotle and salsa verde, which exploded with incendiary flavor. A dessert of beignets and chocolate espresso ganache was sheer New Orleans heaven.
Since the small room was full during our recent visit, it was extremely noisy at times. We asked for ice cubes for a bottled cocktail that we brought, and we were told that would take a while. Eventually, we were told the freezer was not able to make ice cubes. All 16 seats were occupied during our visit, and several other potential customers came in and walked out, probably because there would have been a very long wait for a table.
Flora is open Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. Dinner only is served Tuesday through Saturday. A website is in the works. They do not accept credit cards; only cash or check. Parking may be available on nearby streets, and there is a parking lot one or two blocks away. As I write this, there are 11 customer reviews of Flora on Yelp.com. Ten gave it 5 stars, and one gave it 4 stars. For more information, call (215) 779-7945 or visit their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/FloraJenkintown.
Len Lear’s dining column appears regularly in Ticket. For more go to www.tickettoentertainment.com.