When Yvonne Levy was growing up in the hills of Saint Andrew Parrish in Jamaica, she knew one thing for certain: She didn’t care for meat. “I’d pay my brother to eat it,” she jokes from the kitchen of her Elmont restaurant, Toma-Tis Restaurant & Grill. “I always wanted something plant-based.”
As an adult, Levy learned to cook traditional, robust Jamaican dishes such as jerk chicken and oxtail, which she did for 20 years at the Queens restaurant Jamaican Flavors, known across New York for their beef-filled Jamaican patties. When she opened Toma-Tis in 2015, Levy’s menu spliced together traditional Jamaican fare with the plant-based dishes she had long honed with the focus of a chemist, using mushrooms to emulate oxtail or chicken, for instance, or coconut to lend creaminess to mac-and-cheese, or squash to tint housemade nut cheeses. “I was always coming up with new dishes,” she said.
The word “vegan” can evoke mixed reactions in people — and the assumption that giving up meat and dairy means a featureless diet. Between 2 and 4% of Americans identify as vegan, according to various sources — but regardless of how quickly (or not) the numbers of vegans are growing, more and more Long Island chefs are engineering plant-based alternatives for mac-and-cheese, Reubens and even Jamaican beef patties that eschew dairy and meat without sacrificing flavor or texture.
By 2019, Levy, now in her late 50s, had gained such a widespread reputation for her plant-based Jamaican food that Uber Eats reached out to her to create a vegan ghost kitchen, called Liv-In Vegan. The next year, presenter Action Bronson visited Toma-Tis for an episode of his food show on VICE-TV. The growing buzz behind her food, as well as the watershed of COVID-19, compelled Levy to pivot Toma-Tis almost exclusively to plant-based dishes in last year, using mushrooms, nuts, vegetables, soy and roots in ingenious ways to dupe dishes like escovitched fish (Levy uses tofu) and jerk chicken (which she emulates with mushrooms in the same complex jerk sauce).
After the pandemic arrived, “that’s when the reality hit that ‘food is medicine,’” said Levy, who is also a trained engineer and nutritionist.
Between lunch, dinner, and the meals she donates to a Rosedale senior center, Levy, only gets a few moments each week to experiment — usually in the mornings — and uses that time to perfect dishes such as vegan stewed peas (made with kidney beans and tiger nut root) and curried “goat,” shaped from tiger nut flour bonded with flax seed. “I came up with a raw lasagna, and I’m experimenting with a jerk burger,” she said.
The past year also brought a full pivot to plant-based food for Organic Corner in Massapequa, a move owner Craig Margulies and his partners had been working before COVID reordered the restaurant landscape. For years, Organic Corner had served vegan salads, sandwiches and other dishes as part of its healthy-food focus, but Margulies had sometimes noted discomfort among vegan eaters that the café was still serving meat, for instance. He was struck, too, that Long Island was lacking in more formal sit-down dinners for vegan eaters.
Transitioning Organic Corner into a full-service vegan restaurant — with table service, live music and organic wine — is complete: A giant Buddha statue greets diners who arrive into a space that still has a counter at the back but also an elegant farmhouse vibe with woodsy walls, exposed beamwork and broad windows that flood the room with light.
A few months ago, 23-year-old chef Viktoria Hermann began frequenting Organic Corner as a customer. Hermann, who became a plant-based eater while studying culinary at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, was hired by Margulies as a barista — and, eventually, as chef. “When we decided to go all in,” with a vegan menu, said Margulies, “she jumped right in and took control.”
During the day, Organic Corner still pours fresh juices and smoothies, and its cases are stocked with healthy salads, but at 3 p.m. from Thursday to Saturday the juicery closes in preparation for languid plant-based dinners. Hermann and the kitchen crew crank out plates of zucchini noodle lasagna with cashew ricotta and gluten-free breadcrumbs, or creamy kale Caesar salad, or molten mac-and-cheese laced with cashew and coconut cream. A “Dirty Corner” menu replicates comfort foods such as poutine and nachos with house cheese sauces, but nary an ounce of Beyond Meat or Impossible Burger. “We didn’t want to go in that direction,” said Hermann, whose house burger is made from beets and topped with guacamole and a spicy cheese sauce.
There’s beer, kombucha on tap and organic wine, as well as gluten-free desserts from both Organic Corner’s kitchen and Sweet Soul Bakery in St. James.
Margulies, who is not vegan, said he’s noticed diners traveling far from points far east and west. “A lot of people have negative connotations about veganism,” he said. “I wanted a place that could be called plant-based, but also open to mainstream people, so they sit down and their eyes light up.”
Here are five places to get finely tuned plant-based dishes on Long Island, from delis to multicourse meals.
Toma-Tis (796 Meacham Ave., Elmont): Chef-owner Yvonne Levy has spent much of her adult life devising plant-based alternatives to traditional Jamaican dishes, and cooks an almost entirely vegan menu at her Jamaican takeout spot in Elmont. Oyster, cremini, button and portabella mushrooms take the place of chicken in her version of jerk “chicken,” and also serve to dupe oxtail. She fuses tiger nut root and flax seed for curried “goat,” uses a creamy coconut sauce for Rasta Pasta and even makes flaky Jamaican patties from scratch. Jerk pumpkin soup, barbecued jackfruit salad and yucca fries are among other plates, while fresh juices and dairyless smoothies are on hand to complement the robust flavors. Food is cooked to order, so plan ahead. Appetizers range from $8 to $12, entrees are $20, wraps are $12 and patties are $3. More info: 516-599-0891. tomatisvegan.com
Organic Corner (37 Broadway, Massapequa): By day this juice bar and café is a cheerful spot to chill with a carrot smoothie or açaí bowl. By night — at least Thursday through Sunday nights — chef Viktoria Hermann plates an entirely plant-based sit-down menu of dishes such as cauliflower wings (with bleu-cheese dipping sauce), sushi rolls, penne a la Vika (with a cauliflower Bolognese) and even vegan poutine. Small plates and salads start at $11, entrees are $18 to $25 and there are vegan and gluten-free desserts such as chipwiches and cheesecake, plus beer and organic wine. More info: 516-798-5670, organiccornerny.com
Clementine’s Plant-Based Deli and Bakery (4836 Sunrise Hwy., Sayville): The menu changes weekly at this new vegan deli opened by mother and daughter Cira and Chloe Jones in February. A recurring special is a crispy buttermilk “chicken” sandwich, made with battered, fried tempeh, vegan Cheddar and pickles, wedged katsu-style between slices of bread. Tofu-chorizo and jackfruit tacos, mac-and “cheese” with barbecued jackfruit and zucchini fritters have all made recent appearances. (Beware that some dishes may sell out before the end of the day). The busy bakeshop in the back turns out cupcakes, pies, tarts, cookies, and other sweets, and there is soft-serve ice cream, too, as well as a few tables for eating in. Most dishes fall between $7 and $13. Friday to Sunday only, with menus posted on social media. More info: 631-664-1270 veggingoutatclementines.com
Ben’s Kosher Deli Restaurant & Caterers (59 Old Country Rd. in Carle Place, 7971 Jericho Tpke. in Woodbury, 140 Wheatley Plaza in Greenvale): Hold up — has the longtime home of hot pastrami gone vegan? Not quite, but this spring Ben’s Kosher Deli leaned in with a plant-based menu. While vegetarian chili and vegetable soup are not quite groundbreaking, there’s now a plant-based Reuben made with vegan corned beef produced from beets, chickpeas and tomatoes by LA-based Mrs. Goldfarb’s Unreal Deli. At $19.99, it’s a few bucks more than the hot pastrami sandwich, but means carnivores and plant-based eaters can break bread together. More info: bensdeli.net
North Fork Table & Inn (57225 Main Rd., Southold): When well-known maestro of vegetables chef John Fraser moved into this venerated North Fork restaurant last year, the menu immediately gained a plant-based sheen — literally, as Fraser is devoted to showcasing seasonal vegetables in all their natural glory. This spring, that means spring onion fritters, smoky barbecued vegetables (such as maitake mushroom and butternut squash) with jasmine rice, and a spring-pea agnolotti with pea leaf pesto. More info: 631-765-0177. northforktableandinn.com