Kelly O
Kelly O

Founded two decades ago in the back of a minivan, Hillside Quickie, Inc. is a Pacific Northwest vegetarian institution. This family business made its name through the art of the vegan sandwich, producing a line of big, messy tofu/tempeh/seitan inventions drawing on flavors from all over. (The classic Crazy Jamaican Burger features jerk tofu with plantains, grilled sweet onions, tomatoes, and vegan mayo.) Instantly adored by the vegan faithful—who likely believed they'd forsaken such calorie-packed extravagance forever—Hillside Quickie progressed from the minivan to a chain of three shops: Hillside Quickie's Vegan Sandwich Shop in the U-District, Hillside Quickie's Cafe on Capitol≠≠ Hill, and the southern satellite Quickie Too in Tacoma.

And now there's Plum, "Hillside Quickie's New American Bistro." In place of the sandwich shops' casual counter service, Plum offers menus and servers and organic wine. Instead of the shops' cramped coziness, Plum gives diners room to breathe in the big, bright, stylishly spare 12th Avenue space previously occupied by Cafe Stellina. It's a good fit, with elegant wood-top tables placed at comfortable intervals along the clean concrete floor and stark minimalist art cast along the vast concrete wall. The front is floor-to- ceiling garage-door-style windows, openable in nice weather.

My first visit to Plum involved lunch with two carnivorous friends. They had volunteered for the assignment but couldn't help flinching at the menu descriptions—apparently, "tofustrami" sounds as appetizing to carnivores as baby back ribs do to vegans. Eventually, decisions were made, with friendly, patient guidance from our server. For Carnivore #1: the smoked Northwest portobello and tempeh crepes ($11). For Carnivore #2: the apple-pecan salad ($11 lunch/$13 dinner). For me: the vegan sliders ($11). For the table: the pizza of the day ($14), a margherita- ish pie equipped with lightly spicy sauce, a delicious, double thin-layer crust, and vegan mozzarella that was the first vegan cheese I've ever had that didn't make me want to sue. (The carnivores were satisfied by it, if not impressed.)

Even for a lifelong vegetarian, a visit to Plum can feel like a taste-test in a laboratory on the cutting edge of vegan science, but lucky for all, Plum's experiments are more successful than not. The apple-pecan salad was a gorgeous, gigantic affair, loaded with spring greens, fresh romaine, pecans, apples, cranberries, segments of navel orange, green grapes, and quinoa, all arranged with painstaking radial symmetry and served with a champagne vinaigrette. It's a salad built for two or three, and it could stand to lose a couple ingredients to tighten up the flavor contrasts. (Front-runner for expulsion: the oranges, which take things to an almost cartoonish level.) Still, it's a salad to like a lot, if not to love.

The portobello-and-tempeh crepes also looked exceptionally pretty, finished with a drizzle of vegan crème fraîche that shocked us all with its palatability. Achieving creaminess through vegan means has long been a challenge, but this crème fraîche—somehow made with tempeh—showcased the strides being made in the field. The crepes were praised by (fussy) Carnivore #1 for their properly light-and-lacey outer crispiness, but had a slightly gummy texture underneath. As far as the insides, Carnivore #1 could've done without the "too smoky" tempeh, saying the portobellos alone would've been better.

My sliders, meanwhile, were a classic Hillside Quickie creation. Described as a sloppy-joe-style millet-and-quinoa blend served with grilled onions, chopped jalapeños, and a jalapeño aioli, the plate arrived bearing what looked like three full-size sandwiches, each on a small bun of a structural integrity that soon destroyed all claims to sandwichness. Biting through the bun required applying a pressure that sent the goopy insides squishing out in all directions, with the resulting food less a sandwich than a flavorful casserole topped and bottomed with the world's sturdiest crouton. Did I mention there were three of them? Seemingly determined to destroy the lore that vegan food can't be filling, Plum stuffs its customers, with the 10-bucks-and-up menu prices earned through both the quality and quantity of the food.

For dinner, I brought a fellow vegetarian-not-vegan, who promptly dove into the lush, fruit-laden jungle of the apple-pecan salad and came out happy, while conceding that the fruit-salad topping was a bit of vegan overkill. My starter was the sautéed tofu rolls ($8), thoroughly spicy concoctions packed with jalapeños, baby tomatoes, and an orange-avocado salsa I enjoyed so much I'd consider the full-size entrée version ($16).

Things got complicated with the entrée course. My companion ordered the grilled teriyaki tofu kebabs ($15) and an organic cabernet sauvignon from California ($7); I ordered the Spicy Cajun Mac 'n' Yease ($18) with a vino verde from Portugal ($7). My choices thrilled: the vino verde had the perfect sparkly kick, and despite the winceworthy name, the macaroni delivered, its vegan-cheese approximation once again perfectly palatable (with abundant spice offering an assist). The sides were deeply satisfying: The southern-fried seitan patties provided a protein-rich counter-substance to the goopy macaroni, while the fresh-roasted new potatoes were simply astounding, accompanied by nothing but traces of thyme, each bite a perfectly contained world of near-mashed potato held together by the thinnest, crispiest skin. Judging from the evidence, roasted potatoes are the world's most satisfying vegan food. A similarly simple delight lit up my companion's teriyaki tofu kebabs plate: spears of asparagus, sautéed and swoonworthy in their goodness. As with the potatoes, Plum knew when to get out of the way of a natural wonder. Not so impressive: everything else my companion had, from the nothing-special grilled tofu to the bland, lukewarm mashed yams to the too-sweet cab sav. Thankfully, my totally smashing entrée—a perfect example of Plum's comfort-food decadence—was enough to feed us both.

For now, the vibe is light and airy, but that will alter considerably once the months of 4:30 p.m. darkness descend. Still, Plum offers the most satisfying—and only upscale—all-vegan experience in town (Tobey Maguire reportedly became a regular during his recent Seattle film shoot), and the tables are already set with candles. recommended