If you want a seat at Kelley Farm Kitchen, a new vegan restaurant in Bolivar, West Virginia, it helps to call ahead. The tiny dining room, just a few miles down the road from historic Harpers Ferry, has room for five tables seated comfortably (though co-owner Ben Kelley managed to squeeze a group of 17 into the restaurant last week).
The cafe, founded by Kelley and his wife, Sondra, can trace a circuitous route back to existence. The short version of the story starts last November, when the kitchen officially opened for business. The long version starts two years earlier, in 2016, when the husband-wife team first watched a film called “Forks Over Knives.” The 2011 documentary espouses the health benefits of a plant-based lifestyle and “completely changed” the way the Kelleys thought about food, Sondra said.
“We went vegan the day before Thanksgiving and never looked back,” she added.
At the time, both were doing the millennial thing, working full-time jobs in retail and running a small farm on the side. Their weekends were spent at farmers markets, selling homemade pickles, jams, and spaghetti sauce. It wasn’t until last summer, when a space opened up in downtown Bolivar, that they even considered opening a restaurant. But the property owner was a friend, and encouraged the Kelleys to grab the opportunity.
“We felt like we couldn’t pass it up,” Sondra said.
Neither had restaurant experience, but Sondra learned how to cook when she was 4 years old. Ben, a former sales manager at a nearby car dealership, had plenty of customer service experience. Both had been eating vegan for the previous two years. Sondra knew that the culinary landscape had changed by leaps and bounds, as far as animal protein replacements were concerned.
“Even the cheeses are phenomenal,” she said. “Some people can’t even tell the difference.”
It’s true that Kelley Farm Kitchen fits neatly into a nationwide expansion of vegan cuisine. Gone are the days of sponge-like seitan and mushy portabella burgers. Instead, restaurants like Fancy Radish in Washington, D.C. — one of the top entrants on Tom Sietsema’s 2018 Fall Dining Guide — are pushing the boundaries of what vegan cooking can be.
While Fancy Radish veers toward the territory of haute cuisine, Kelley Farm Kitchen remains solidly in the comfort food camp. That, I discovered, can be a very good thing. Especially when it results in starters like the “cheezy” Buffalo cauliflower dip, a vibrant orange bowl full of pureed cauliflower, vegan cheese substitute, and homemade Buffalo sauce. Slightly grainy, with a subtle nuttiness on the back palate, the dip was nearly indistinguishable — at least flavor-wise — from its chicken-packed counterpart.
The vibrant “Roots & Greens” wrap is another good option, though it doesn’t pretend to be junk food. A thin rice paper wrapper is stuffed nearly to bursting with shaved slices of raw beet, carrot, radish, and turnip, all wrapped snugly around a core of avocado and mixed greens. The rich flavors of the raw root vegetables are tempered by the creamy avocado and a subtly sweet tahini sauce served on the side, studded with black sesame seeds. Texturally, you can expect some crunch, especially when the carrot slices converge at the base of the wrap. But I found the mix of raw vegetables refreshing, and the presentation — with deep red beets glowing through the translucent wrapper — absolutely beautiful.
The wrap stood in stark contrast to an order of cast-iron potato pancakes, armored with lacy, pan-fried shells. That initial crunch yielded to impossibly fluffy interiors, somehow accomplished without the use of butter or cream. I was impressed by the technical ingenuity, though I noticed that the cakes themselves didn’t have much flavor. Luckily, the order is topped with a zesty salsa verde-like cream and piped barbecue sauce hearts. The dressings lend some savor to the golden-brown patties.
Part of the restaurant’s charm comes from the Kelleys themselves, a talkative pair with an intimate knowledge of the vegan food scene. If you’re unsure where to start, they might guide you towards an Impossible Burger, one of the newest innovations in the world of meat substitutions. It’s often talked up as the veggie burger that “bleeds,” though that’s not really the case, Ben explained regretfully. It is not possible, as a point of fact, to order a medium-rare Impossible Burger.
“If you don’t cook it all the way through, it just falls apart,” he said.
On a brighter note, the company is sending the restaurant a case of the 2.0 prototype, rumored to be even meatier and flavor-filled than the original. Not that the first iteration is bad. I sampled the restaurant’s “Big Ben” burger — an almost comically huge sandwich with two Impossible patties stacked atop lettuce, tomato, red onion, and vegan American cheese — and was interested in the texture on a near scientific level. It reminded me strongly of very finely minced ground beef. Most of the flavor came from the grill, coupled with Thousand Island dressing and homemade dill pickles. The burgers were lightly charred, with a crisp, flavorful crust. The cheese slices were indistinguishable from Kraft singles. I knew it was a vegan burger, but it didn’t taste like one.
The jackfruit, another meat facsimile, is further testament to the ingenuity of vegan cooking. Sondra stews the southeast Asian fruit for a day and a half, Ben said, to mimic the texture of pulled pork. It’s served in sandwich form, on a grilled Kaiser roll, with barbecue or Jamaican jerk sauce (you can also order tacos to make the meal gluten-free).
Try the barbecue and you’ll be rewarded with a pile of jackfruit in a tangy Kansas City-style sauce, texturally reminiscent of a very soft pulled pork. The sandwich is topped with crisp coleslaw and served with your choice of a side. The house salad is a sure bet, with bright ribbons of carrots and juicy blackberries, but the duo also recommends a dish of vegan baked macaroni and cheese — fat elbows of pasta swathed in a pale yellow sauce. It’s the only dish that doesn’t quite live up to its dairy-laden counterpart. There’s a whisper of cheese, sure, but it’s a far cry from the tartness of cheddar or the delicate nuttiness of a good Gouda. The overcooked pasta doesn’t help matters.
Still, it’s easy enough to wash away with an enormous bowl of ramen, topped with scallions and submerged in a light vegetable broth.
“Don’t be alarmed,” warned Sondra as she set the soup down. “It’s dark red because I put raw beets in it.”
The earthy roots are joined by crisp slices of carrot and radish, balanced by a healthy scattering of sliced mushrooms. The wholesome feeling of diving into a bowl of fresh vegetables should be amplified over the next few months, as the Kelleys add more locally sourced produce to the menu. Many of their herbs and veggies already come from Town & Country Nursery, a greenhouse operation less than five miles from the restaurant.
“We try to source from small farmers as much as we can,” Sondra said. “That’s the kind of restaurant we’re trying to be.”
Follow Kate Masters on Twitter @kamamasters.