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Vegan fine dining comes of age in Cuenca

Chef Giovanni of Le Petit Jardin serving a vegan poached pear in a red berry sauce.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on vegan and vegetarian dining in Cuenca. Tomorrow: Cuenca’s vegan super chefs.

Text and photos by John Keeble

It was not so long ago that the phrase “vegan fine dining” was an oxymoron – but no longer. Now, in Cuenca and around, vegan cuisine has come of age.

Oddly, its most sophisticated chefs are not vegan and take on the cuisine as specialised extensions of their normal work as long as they are told at the time of booking. Equally interesting, they reached their levels of expertise by working in restaurants and creating their own highly-successful styles without formal training.

Fine dining at Yasu Umet (right to left): Shahbaz Khan, Amanda Malone, Jeff Van Pelt, Neal Adams, Jolene Wilson-Glah, John Keeble. (Photo by Yasu Umet)

I have been a vegetarian/vegan all my life but I cannot recall eating better vegan meals anywhere, with Cuenca’s fine dining offerings easily matching earlier favorites like southern Indian meals by the Mekong in Laos, Japanese food in England, Greek meals by the Aegean Sea, and Egyptian feasts on the Nile.

What I can say is that the vegan meals are world class at Le Petit Jardin in San Miguel de Sayausi, and at Yasu Umet’s eatery in Cuenca, thanks to the imagination and skills of chefs Giovanni and Yasu. They add both art and quality to any food they serve.

I think back to the 1970s in London when restaurant “vegetarian” meals were invariably an omelette or a salad, and veganism was far beyond the fringe of consciousness. Now, in a world where plant-based diets are roaring ahead, Cuenca has taken to it with variety and excellence.

Indeed, it would be iniquitous to single out the two fine-dining locations without mentioning the fantastic everyday vegan opportunities in the city and the score or more excellent restaurants that either offer vegetarian/vegan options or will bend their menus to produce good vegan meals.

Vegan stuffed tomato, stuffed zucchini, and asparagus.

Le Petit Jardin
I chanced upon on Giovanni’s restaurant with my hiking group – and I was amazed at the welcome and effort I received from Giovanni. He casually told me that a vegan meal was no problem when I was expecting little that I could eat. It was the first of many superb meals there, and I enjoy letting him cook vegan surprises for me. Once tried, his vegan meals are impossible to forget.

“I don’t cook from recipes; I cook from my heart,” said Giovanni. “I get fresh organic produce for my kitchen and I use classic French cooking. There is always something new on my menu but if someone books who needs special dishes we stop and say: ‘What can we do for this guest?’ This is something I love to do. My guests are my friends and I am very thankful that they come to my restaurant.”

Chef Giovanni at work in the kitchen.

He cooks in a kitchen open to view and, when the demands are fast and furious, you can see him working with the mind of an artistic computer and the coordination of an orchestra. It is a show in itself. His wife, Maria Eliza, runs the restaurant service side with a speed that matches Giovanni’s kitchen skills.

Giovanni has been cooking since the age of 10. It started as a way to help his family but it proved to be inspirational. Fourteen years later,he emigrated to the U.S. and found a job where he could study French cooking in Baltimore, Maryland.

Stuffed eggplant with grilled vegetables.

When he returned to Ecuador, he, his wife and his brother-in-law built the restaurant, its furniture and its decorations – and opened at the weekends. He, like Cuenca, was celebrating foundation day on April 12: Le Petit Jardin’s fourth anniversary.

Jeff Van Pelt, who usually prefers a meat and fish diet, commented: “There were two vegetarian appetizers on the menu last time I was there. They looked the most interesting. I chose the provencal tart [with tomatoes, cream, pesto, parmesan, goat cheese]. My wife Sharon chose the fried eggplant [with tapenade, pesto, goat cheese, tomato] and shared it with me. They were both delicious.”

Jeff Van Pelt: “The vegetarian appetizers were delicious.”

If you want a vegan meal, make a reservation and say that you need something vegan. In my experience, leaving it to the creativity of Giovanni will ensure a real treat. This is what he served me on a recent visit: Vegetable soup, thick with maybe a dozen different vegetables; baked eggplant stack with vegetables, puree, and salad; poached pear with red berry sauce. Cost: $15.

Email: lepetitjardinecuador@gmail.com
Call: 096-819-1518
Address: San Miguel de Sayausi. Ask Giovanni for directions.
Open: Saturdays and Sundays from 12:00. Last orders at 7:15pm.
*Always state at the time of booking that you need a vegan meal.
_________________

Yasu Umet
This is another vegan fine dining experience to tantalise, amaze and satisfy. Chef Yasu is a creative perfectionist and, as I tasted course after course, I marvelled at the incredible tastes and textures.

Chef Yasu working in his kitchen.

He serves six courses for $18 – this is what he served me recently: zucchini shell filled with green-pea apple mousse over asparagus salad; pumpkin-quinoa cake in curry-flavored corn milk; carrot terrine layered with cashew-nut butter and glazed with beet juice reduction; gnocchi with roasted artichoke & grilled mushroom; vegan mousse (tofu & carrot juice); dehydrated chocolate shell stuffed with vegan chocolate mousse & praline with homemade chocolate sorbet.

It was so good that I lost some to friends wanting to try different courses. One, Shahbaz Khan, commented: “This is so good, maybe next time we should all have vegan.”

Yasu’s carrot terrine layered with cashew-nut butter.

My quote? “Impossible to beat this six-course treat!”

Ellen Robinson, a vegan friend from the Cuenca Vegans and Vegetarians Facebook group, told me of her experience: “I was the only vegan in our group of 11, but everyone completely loved the vegan meal. I was blown away because gourmet meals that are entirely plant-based are not common by any means, let alone in Cuenca. My husband and I returned to Yasu’s three more times during our three month stay in Ecuador. I loved the laid back atmosphere: it always felt like such a unique experience.”

Yasu’s chocolate shell stuffed with vegan chocolate mousse & praline.

Chef Yasu explained his cooking philosophy for vegan meals: “Many things I do are time-consuming, and the vegan meal is no exception.” His regular menus can be laden with meat or dairy products. “I make the vegan menu completely aside from the regular menu. But I don’t mind doing it at all. Setting a boundary makes me to come up with new things.”

Email: yasuandgio@gmail.com
Call: 098 181 2049
Address: Ricardo Darquea Granda 292 (Manuel Galvez) Puertas del Sol
Open: Thursday (dinner only), Friday (lunch/ dinner), & Saturday (lunch/dinner): 12:30 pm -3:30 pm; 5:30 pm – 10:30 pm
*Always state at the time of booking that you need a vegan meal.
________________

Where vegans & vegetarians can eat

All restaurants listed, except the dedicated vegan and vegetarian restaurants, also offer meat/fish menus

Gourmet vegan (special orders)

Le Petit Jardin
Yasu Umet

Vegan and vegetarian restaurants

Cafe Libre (vegan)
La Quinua (mostly vegan)
Good Affinity (Chinese, mostly vegan)
Essere (Italian, vegetarian)
Fratello (vegan)
Govinda’s (vegetarian)
YuraVeg
Formosa Taiwan
El Sabor de Zen
El Paraíso (chain, lower prices)

Vegan- & Vegetarian-friendly restaurants/cafes

A Pedir de Boca
The Bar of Cuenca (southern Indian)
Seven Spices (Indian)
Namaste (Indian)
Nucallacta
Taconico (Mexican)
Ali’s Kitchen (Mediterranean)
San Sabas
Thai Connection
Pho Vietnamita Casa del Fideo
Inca Bar
El Tokte (salad & fruit bar)
Pizza restaurants (most offer vegetarian but will leave off the cheese; check base ingredients)
El Mercado
The Vegetable Bar
Taita (panaderia-cafeteria)
La Tosta (panaderia-cafeteria)

This list was compiled by the Cuenca Vegan & Vegetarian Facebook group has been growing by more than two new members a week for the past 18 months. If you are vegan, vegetarian, transitioning or just interested, join us for community-contributed recipes and recommendations. You could be the 200th person to join.