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Vegan Friendly: Comfort Food and Sustainability at Donna Jean in Banker's Hill

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PHOTOGRAPHY by
Kelly Bone
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August 22, 2018
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The Short and Skinny

Donna Jean offers a vegetable forward menu with midwestern charm and California sensibilities.

The Vibe

Under the dappling of the summer sun, pink radish bulbs push through the dirt under the kale leaves and carrot tops surrounding Donna Jean’s patio. Between the magenta shocks of bougainvilleas, tables fill with dukkah-dusted turnips and pizzas dotted with smoked dates and pickled shallots.

Vegetables drive the menu—but all dishes are quietly supported by the spice and experience.

A midwestern boy at heart, Chef Roy Elam carries the lessons learned there—use everything, force nothing.

Vegetables grown on the patio make their way to the kitchen, where they are supplemented by other California-grown produce. Dishes rotate on and off the menu, driven by the creative kitchen and growing season. This fluidity helps maintain the restaurant’s tidy carbon footprint.

The Food

The baseline flavors of Donna Jean’s pizzas cannot hide on the ‘Rita. Here the sloping rim of crust holds a pulpy pool of crushed Bianco DeNapoli tomatoes and vegan mozzarella. A scattering of torn basil shades crushed garlic and smoked black pepper. The dough—wheat, water, yeast, and salt—is spread thin and comes out crisp.

Chef Elam doesn’t force his gluten free option. Instead of mimicking the rise of wheat with the disappointment of rice and tapioca, the kitchen turns to the classic socca.

This traditional chickpea flour crepe, originating in the south of France, is a distinct dish of its own that may startle expectations. The hardy base holds up to the onslaught of toppings—black garlic, smoked dates, ricotta, red onion, bell peppers, mustard greens, and fresno oil—on the Pie On Fire option.

Throughout the menu, vegetables are recycled. Corn cobs simmer in dashi stock, building the foundations of the white wine garlic cream sauce. The chili oil strewn on pizzas is distilled from the stained seeds of the fermented hot sauce swirled over the Nashville Hot Shrooms.

Mushroom stems and green onion trimming are dehydrated and ground into a powder dusted over dishes. Any leftovers without a place are sauteed for staff meal.

Beyond produce, most items in Donna Jean’s pantry are locally sourced, from the El Cajon San Diego Soy Dairy Tofu whipped into the Strawberry and Cream dessert, to the elbows of Pasadena's Semolina Artisanal Pasta loaded into the mac and cheese.

Quinoa, a grain nearly synonyms with veganism, has no place in this kitchen, “There are plenty of grains native to CA that can be used without importing quinoa from Bolivia,” explains Elam. And with a menu of hearty, plant-based comfort foods, you won’t miss it.

What To Order

Nashville Hot Shrooms ($10) Thin breading crackles between meaty oyster mushroom and a light drizzle of house-fermented hot sauce. Served over white bread with pickles, this dish captures a vegetable-centric version of Americana.

Tokyo Turnips ($8) Plump roots come draped in their own greens. A puddle of zhoug—a sauce traditionally of green chilies peppers, coriander, and garlic—and a drizzle of house cultured yogurt holds a dusting of dukkah—a crushed blend of sesame seeds, nuts, and spices.

Eggplant ($8): Chunky cuts of Japanese eggplant soak in the bite of sambal and maple vinegar. Wrinkled cherry tomatoes and a scattering of Thai basil offset the heat.

Panzanella ($7 half / $12 full): Torn bread baked crisp, softens against the flesh of heirloom tomatoes and cucumbers. Crisp bits of bell pepper and aged vegan mozzarella nestle in crescents of shaved fennel root.

The Sandwich ($16): A petite package brimming with flavor. The house-baked rye bread revels in a buttery grill and is stuffed with tempeh, thyme maple onions, smoked cheddar, and sauerkraut cured from scrap cauliflower leaves.

Cast Iron Mac & Cheese ($13): A classic since opening, the cast iron casserole carries fain smoke and summer tomatoes in a creamy cashew sauce.

'Rita Pizza ($13) All the essentials can be found on the ‘Rita: Crushed Bianco Dinapoli tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil along with a scattering of smoked black pepper.

Stone Fruit Galette ($8): Pastry dough folds over tart apricot pulp—or whatever the season may offer—under a dollop of custard, a sweet ricotta glaze, and torn mint.

Pro Tip: Explore the vegetable menu, some of the more interesting ingredients, like green strawberry umeboshi and vadouvan butter, can be found here.

Donna Jean

2949 Fifth Avenue, Banker's Hill, San Diego

Hours: Monday to Friday, 11am-9pm; Saturday and Sunday, 10am-9pm

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS
Kelly Bone
Kelly Bone is a vegan food writer, photographer, and pizza nerd. She has served as a food judge at various US festivals and is part of the Vegan in San Diego team providing resources and hosting charitable vegan events in San Diego. You can follow her work on Instagram at @KellyBone or on her blog The Veg Foodie.
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