Is it possible to be formalist with vegan cuisine?
By that I mean, I wonder if there's a way to go to a vegan restaurant and judge its alternative dishes, without considering the original, omnivorous recipe. In the world of food, meat as a commodity is glamorized, almost fetishized. We have whole industries dedicated to the fattening of cattle, made luxurious by region and pedigree. Instagram food porn will always include an animal product, whether it's a butter-basted steak cut pink, or an egg yolk yielding its gold.
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Such fixations rarely ever apply to what elementary school taught us to call "glow foods." Media seems incapable of hyping agriculture or crop-work (farm-to-table businesses get one page in a magazine and are forgotten), and citrus is only cool if you're sipping on a piña colada. The impossible objective, then, of any vegan dish, is practically alchemy. It can only be good if it is mistaken for meat.
This is the conundrum every vegan restaurant has to face, and the kind of judgment Cosmic—established by co-founders Rodel and Devaki Guinto, Dan Saulo and Donita Salazar—has to deal with, despite its success so far after being in business for a little less than a year. Tucked away on the second floor of a building in the corner of General Luna and P. Burgos in bustling Poblacion—just above a Mini-stop—with no signage save for a black and white illuminati eye, Cosmic is a hidden gem. Slide the door open and you'll find lapiz light fixtures, a rainforest mural, and those fancy tables that keep the irregular shape of their original wood. What’s most astounding about it’s interior is the fact that it is never empty. I've been there thrice and there are at least three tables taken at any given time. On weekends, there’s usually a line outside.
Though Cosmic specializes in remaking Filipino dishes in vegan form, it isn't afraid to borrow from other cuisines. One of their appetizer plates is a medley of different kinds of tempura: seaweed, tofu skin, and enoki mushroom. It's a dynamic assortment, varied shapes each affected a little differently by a light, crispy batter whose crunch can compete with any Japanese resto. The Tempura Combo Platter is a bit on the greasy side—which is almost refreshing, in a vegan culinary scene that deigns to keep its dishes squeaky clean.
It's when we get to the Filipino main dishes that things start to get a little tricky, and I'm not sure whether I should put the pressure on vegan meals to live up to a culinary sense of Filipino-ness, one that celebrates fat and thick sauce and animal parts that make white people squeamish.
For example, regular sisig is assertive with its heat and crunch. It inspires a certain amount of aggressive machismo knowing you're eating pig face. But Cosmic's sisig is... gentle. Its heat is light and it kind of chews like the real thing, and certainly scratches the itch of biting into something like fat or ligament. The BBQ isaw, which employs soy, is pretty convincing. It's gummy and smokey, and you could argue there is merit that it doesn't feel like the entrail it attempts to copy.
The egg and logganisa all-day breakfast meal is a hit or miss, though—meaning, it all depends on your preference. Cosmic's eggs are basically tofu, less salty and less glossy than your average morning scramble. This might do it for you if you're a fan of tomato and egg stir fry, which celebrates sogginess. But if you prefer bona fide, butter-heavy scrambled eggs, whether it's Gordon Ramsay's fluffy gold or McDonalds' dry umami brick, this might not be a winner.
The real star of the show at Cosmic, however, is the kare-kare. Lalita Balagtas, manager of Cosmic, tells me that the formula for the kare-kare's bagnet is actually soy for the meat, and vegetable starch for the fat, and in this respect the alchemy is a success — crispy, with the gumminess of honest-to-God ligament. Pechay and slices of eggplant swim in peanut sauce. I think Cosmic's kare-kare is successful because out of every dish here, this one is the least carnivorous. The peanut sauce is the base, so it's the glow foods that do all the heavy lifting, which just means making kare-kare vegan probably didn’t require jumping through so many hoops.
(Honorable mention for most mind-blowing thing on Cosmic's menu is the cold brew with soy milk. Coffee only goes with cow's milk, and nothing else. Trial and error has taught me this. I don't know why the hell the drink works.)
Special mention should also be given to Cosmic's spinach lasagna: it’s tofu rendered with the firmness of any glutinous dough sheet. That it sits in a puddle of its own juices is a plus point, and makes it feel less like a healthy option and more like its own indulgence. Kudos as well should go to the Cosmic Mushroom Burger, a veggie burger that already triumphs for the sole fact that it doesn't taste like falafel smushed with watery lettuce.
Cosmic seems to operate as an appeal to prevalent, carnivorous sensibilities. It tries to stay close to Filipino dishes while also offering non-Filipino meal options for the more closed-minded. It sources its ingredients from a suki in a palengke within Poblacion, partly to prove that contrary to popular belief, a vegan diet can be affordable and easy on the wallet, as long as you know where to look. And while not every dish in Cosmic gets five gold stars, it is a strong argument for anyone who balks at the ere to look. And while not every dish in Cosmic gets five gold stars, the restaurant presents a strong argument for the stubbornly carnivorous: maybe beef that bleeds isn’t all that.
Cosmic is located in the corner of P. Burgos Street and General Luna in Poblacion, Makati.
Photographs by Jar Concengco