Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Taste Testing the Bean

Despite being somewhat of a reclusive miser, I am no stranger to the Sentient Bean. My roommate and I make a habit of a leisurely walk there every Sunday to catch up with each over coffee and sweets. In line, our hearts race as we select a baked good to break our weekly budget of money and calories, and we feel like royalty walking with plates that glitter with sugar. It’s a two-step over computer cords and in between conversations to find a table or couch that we can occupy with brainstorms and gossip, and we sit there too long stealing refills and wishing work wasn’t awaiting us when we left. Everything about the event is painstakingly choreographed, but it’s a choreography I love to dance. In all honesty, it’s probably my favorite part of the week.

My experiences at the Bean have been largely limited to these Sunday mornings and specifically limited to that bakery case. Occasionally, I’ll find myself there on a weekday afternoon, a table all to myself where I scramble to meet some deadline instead of dissecting a Robert Downey Jr. movie like I usually would; but even on those rare occasions where I’ve come to work instead of play, if I’ve got anything sitting beside my coffee, it’s something sweet.

I always go for something sweet because I’m vegan, and finding a homemade vegan treat is difficult to do even in my much-more-metropolitan hometown. (We won’t mention my outrageous sweet tooth.) The novelty of vegan sweets right here in Savannah suckers me in almost every trip - even though every time I know that half the time I’m wasting me $1.50 - $4.00 because their baked goods are so hit-or-miss. It’s that option of lifestyle compatible treats, though; I find it too compelling to avoid! I find it especially compelling because the Bean fails to offer “real” food I see worth paying for.

I’ve eyed the Sentient Bean’s meal options more than once, but it’s never grabbed my attention. Nothing has ever looked good or interesting enough to pound my fist and say, “Give me something I can’t dunk in coffee!” When I look at their menu, I see largely generic vegetarian fanfare at sort of exorbitant prices. I’ll concede that the portions are fairly decent and the ingredients are fairly quality (they use things like demera sugar, whole wheat flour, and some organic produce); but when appealing to a broke college student who’s skilled with a skillet, I need them to give me soups, salads, and sandwiches that sizzle – and I need them vegan, not vegetarian!

Okay, I admit, Sentient Beans gives a lone vegan option that’s gotten my salivary glands pumping from time to time: the barbecue tofu wrap. Sometimes when I catch a glance of it on the menu, my stomach checks itself for hunger so it can try to convince my brain that I need that sandwich. The board describes it as tomato, mixed greens, and tofu dressed in a combination of Vegenaise, sriracha, and barbecue sauce wrapped in a tortilla and pressed like a panini. My stomach usually pleads with my brain, “Doesn’t that sound good?!” but my brain had never given in – that is, until recently.

I ate the barbecue tofu wrap in the shade of the Bean’s back patio with a breeze blowing that simply smelled like sunshine. If there was ever a more perfect time for eating this sandwich, it was that afternoon, and I was dancing inside when my plate arrived. The wrap’s presentation was elegant in its simplicity: a bouquet of color bundled inside a tortilla and ribboned with the crisp impressions of a panini press. The cook had laid it out in a sort of pyramid of thirds and trimmed it with a modest side salad. It looked so fresh and flavorful, my eyes were as happy to consume the sandwich as my mouth was, and when I took my first bite, I was expecting an explosion of flavor.

The flavor was so flat, the side salad was a serious adventure by comparison. The barbecue tofu wrap had always caught my attention because it struck me as cleverly complex. After all, could one ordinary tortilla contain such three distinctly different condiments? Suffice it to say, I wasn’t expecting the condiments to fuse together into something that functioned more like lubricant and less like dressing, but my instinct was to blame the bland tofu and chock the whole sandwich up to poor tofu preparation.

The Bean doesn’t press this protein-packed meat analogue like most veg restaurants do. Without pressing tofu, it maintains that notoriously wet texture tofu that most people are turned off by, and its residual water can drown accompanying flavors. I think that’s what happened here, and it happened in such a profound way, I was halfway through the wrap before I remembered it was called barbecue. The wrap would have been a lot better had the Sentient Bean’s kitchen staff pressed the tofu and then marinated it in barbecue sauce. Then the tofu could do what tofu does best: absorb all that delicious flavor. Now, the wrap would have been perfect had they baked the tofu after marinating it so those cute little cubes would have had crisp little outsides to contrast with the smooth of the sauces they wind up dressed in. But, the Bean didn’t do that, resulting in an underwhelming sandwich that tasted like amateur tofu skills.

As I sat debating whether it was worth the six dollars to have only my curiosity satiated, I watched people traverse the alley paralleling the patio. The Bean’s outback is somewhat secluded by greenery and trellising, but there’s an implied doorway from the alley into the dining area with lots of places where neighbors can spot diners and shout hellos as they walk past with their dogs. Several times during my meal, people would be casually shuffling along only to look over at a friend nose-deep in a book on the patio. The person would re-route themselves to grab a seat, and soon laughter would mix with the faint aromas wafting from the open backdoor of the Bean’s kitchen.

It reminded me that no one goes to the Bean for the food. People go to the Sentient Bean because it faces Forsythe Park. They go because it has fair trade coffee, and the coffee is actually good. They go because the dishwashers will ask you how your cake is - tell you it’s a new recipe tried just that morning, and they’re as eager as you were to try it. People go because the atmosphere at the Bean is as warm as its red walls, especially with events like open-mic comedy nights, weekly film screenings, and performances by underground and indie performers of every stripe. It’s the kind of place where Sunday mornings see children crawling away from their parents and tattooed strangers carrying them back with a smile. If you want a really good vegan sandwich, wait in line at Zunzi’s for half an hour to get the mushroom one without cheese; but if you want a pleasant afternoon that might unexpectedly involve five of your favorite friends, grab something at the Sentient Bean.

Sentient Bean
13 East Park Avenue
Savannah, GA 31401-6436
(912) 232-4447


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    Somehow I missed that you had updated. Very exciting!

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