You’ve really got to wonder what a visitor from anywhere right of the Left Coast would make of Harvest Beat. The food we’ll get to in a moment. Our tourist, however, might not. All the woo-woo it comes wrapped in—the phone message bidding callers to “walk in light,” the blessing before the meal, the ritual ringing of the gong—could very well send him backing toward the exits.
Any local who hears that Harvest Beat is the reincarnation of Sutra, however, will smile knowingly. For seven-plus years the artful little Wallingford house with the well-fluffed aura enjoyed a quiet but ferociously devoted following among vegetarians for co-owner and chef Colin Patterson’s five-course vegan dinners, which consistently blew up the myth of a vegan’s limited claim on sumptuousness. Patterson’s food was so satisfying and lush, omnivores wanted to eat there. (Herbivores wanted to live there.) So when its owners—Patterson and his wife, Amber Tande, plus childhood friend Aaron Geibel and his wife, Jan—announced that new development was forcing Sutra to close, you could almost hear a city bursting into low-sodium tears.
Until Harvest Beat opened up the street.
Turns out while Patterson and Tande were moving to Leavenworth—to open their forthcoming restaurant Mana—the Geibels were looking for another space in Wallingford. They found the shuttered Satay, much larger, and reunited Sutra’s old crew, including Patterson’s longtime deputy chef, Joe Ianelli. Within three months of Sutra’s last meal, Harvest Beat was vibrating to its new energies.
And vibrate they do. We arrived for our evening seating (there’s one a night, Wednesday through Sunday) to a startlingly avid welcome from Aaron Geibel, an earnest guy whose breathless enthusiasm finds parallel in this city’s most voluble, and least punctuated, menu. (As in: Wild foraged stinging nettle gnocchi in a leek garlic grilled abalone mushroom broccolini ragu with an urfa biber sweet potato hempseed sauce finished with fried nettles and microradish.) As a child galloped about his legs, Aaron led us through the crisply appointed main dining room to an upper area, whose plywood floors and overlit panorama of the industrial kitchen were a little deflating.
If Sutra was a tidy boite with a pretty aesthetic, Harvest Beat feels more like a meandering fixer with unfinished projects and hippie art. (One of the projects is the patio out back, which should be roaring by summer, along with longer-term plans like a rooftop vertical garden and a juice bar.) Still, under the glow of candlelight and the Geibels’ obvious sincerity, the setup holds a whiff of formality. Aaron details the five set courses (they change every couple weeks) and diner’s choice of either alcoholic or nonalcoholic pairings (both underpriced). He, ahem, rings a gong.
A certain kind of cynic will find the gong show, with its moment of gratitude, unbearable. The gong looks more like a gas canister, and Geibel’s blessing thanking the farmers for their hard work might benefit from a rephrase of the part thanking “all the hands that touched the food.” (I kept wondering how many of them had scrubbed in 130-degree water for a minimum of 20 seconds.)
But for this cynic, the ritual upholds a set of values so counter to the arrogance of prevailing restaurant culture, they’re as refreshing as a sorbet course. Harvest Beat is proudly uncool, willing to wax openly corny about something all worthy kitchens feel corny about: reverence for the producers. My hat is off to any restaurateur who broadcasts that reverence into a uniting moment with his diners.
Especially when the food comes, and the reverence is sauteed right in. The first course, a bright bisque Ianelli fashioned of ginger and a pureed mirepoix with smoked Tonnemaker Farms carrots, stood as ardent testimonial to fine sourcing. Also fine sieving: The soup was silken as cream. A graduate of CIA Hyde Park, Ianelli is firmly grounded in French technique, but also the strategies vegan chefs rely on for textural interest—like coconut milk—in the absence of flesh or dairy fat.
There’s a lively clamor of flavors, even a touch of modernism, in Ianelli’s cooking. The bisque arrives with a drizzle of rice wine, orange juice, and the tart tang of the petrified lime called black lemon. He crafted a salad of red stem wood sorrel with roasted beets, sweet candied walnuts, a ring of lemon tarragon vinaigrette, and a brazen lick of black lava salt. So he could have dialed up the tarragon. This was a revelation.
A napoleon recalled Patterson’s penchant for layered preparations—a classic vegan sleight-of-hand for heightening interest through contrast. From a potent base of saffron-caper tomato sauce rose stacks of sliced roasted cauliflower, truffle celeriac mousse, and a cap of crackling fried sage leaves—a vivid composition full of clash and resolution and that holy grail of vegan gastronomy, mouthfeel.
Four years ago, laboring at a restaurant in Vermont, Ianelli heard about this chef who was doing amazing things for vegans in Seattle. So he jumped in his car and drove 3,000 miles to Sutra—the result being a rich mentorship that fixed Ianelli as heir to Patterson’s vision. Among the things Patterson taught him was the magic of hempseed, which when added to plant-based liquid transforms the concoction into a butterlike sauce.
And so the final savory course of the night starred such a sauce, weirdly puce from its purple sweet potatoes and Turkish urfa biber chilies, beneath a profusion of abalone mushrooms and maple-doused broccolini spears and gnocchi made with stinging nettles whose leaves Ianelli blanches and purees into a slicker than usual texture—adding up to a dish of real originality, if perhaps too many parts.
By the time dessert came around—a simple stunner of coconut milk “ice cream” with a disc of Theo Chocolate and a gluey-rich peanut butter cookie alongside a schmear of berry coulis—diners had coalesced into a happy sympatico, chatting back and forth across individual tables.
The best single-seating dinners will do this. Or maybe it was the ringing of the gas canister, launching diners on a path that ends, inevitably, at appreciation.