By Frank Sabatini Jr.
The term “Midwest comfort food” conjures up images of gravy-smothered meats, cheesy casseroles and butter-loaded desserts. They’re precisely the kinds of dishes Roy Elam grew up eating outside of St. Louis until becoming a vegan 12 years ago.
Since then, he’s headed the kitchens of two vegan restaurants in the Los Angeles area, helped open a vegan eatery in Bahrain, and sadly lost his mother to breast cancer, which led him into launching a restaurant in her namesake, Donna Jean.
Elam recently opened the venture with partners from Plant Power Fast Food in Ocean Beach and Evolution Fast Food in Bankers Hill. The latter resides next door to Donna Jean.
His menu in comparison beckons to family meals you’d encounter in rural America, albeit with gourmet touches, rather than foods eaten from paper bags and drive-thru windows.
The space was given a lovely makeover from its former Sanfilippo’s days.
A well-tended garden puts patio diners in eyeshot of radishes, kale, beets and herbs that make their way into some of Elam’s dishes. Inside, the walls were repainted in soft earth tones, the bar was built out, and modest décor accents a much airier layout.
The only deep-fried item on his menu is Nashville hot mushrooms of the oyster variety. They’re breaded and brought to a hearty crisp in rice bran oil and served over triangular cuts of bread, which effectively absorbed the residual grease and drizzles of feisty hot sauce.
If you’re familiar with the Nashville hot chicken at KFC, this comes close.
Visiting with a vegetarian verging on veganism, everything we ordered thereafter held greater appeal.
Blistered shishito peppers is a commonplace appetizer that Elam brilliantly elevates with sweet and tangy ingredients such as pickled plum sauce (umeboshi), maple syrup, sherry vinegar and smoked almonds.
Served with swirls of nori puree decorating the lip of the bowl, we eagerly obliterated the entire order, leaving behind only a ravished pile of stems.
Our third appetizer, baked ricotta, is made with cashew milk and achieves accurate texture for spreading onto toasted slices of sourdough.
But even if dairy-based, this ricotta would have soared to delicious heights with lemon oil, chili flakes and licorice-tasting hoja santa leaves bedded underneath.
At last, the world’s most neutral-tasting “cheese” becomes a remarkable thing.
From the short list of entrees, we ordered cast iron mac n’ cheese made also with cashew milk, which develops crispy edges and toasted pockmarks under high heat, much like mild cheddar does.
Rich and pleasantly creamy underneath, we agreed that a dash of cayenne pepper or faux Parmesan cheese in the recipe would have made it sing louder.
For ex-carnivores yearning for a nostalgic meat-and-potatoes meal, Elam’s tempeh Salisbury steak with mashed spuds and smoky red eye gravy will likely satisfy.
Beet juice is incorporated into the faux steak, giving the center a convincing medium-rare appearance.
And a caramelized exterior is achieved with bastings of vegan butter as the steak cooks. Mushrooms, onions and wilted greens clench the plate’s familiar, homey essence.
Elam’s focused menu also includes a sprightly house salad of mixed greens, radishes, pickled shallots, orange sections, smoked almonds and hemp, which we assumed was hidden in the thick, earthy tasting dressing.
There’s also hominy with smoked dates and black garlic, BBQ cauliflower, a black eyed pea burger, ricotta-tempeh ravioli in arrabbiata sauce and a few other dishes that have either evolved or been added since the restaurant debuted three months ago.
We concluded with a dish of blueberry cobbler that you’d never guess was missing real butter in the crumb topping and a slice of Bourbon-spiked sugar pie sporting the texture of flan and topped with fresh strawberries — natural finales to what passes as down-home cooking but with appealing, complex twists.
Craft beer, wine and kombucha are also available at Donna Jean, which is open for dinner from 6 to 10 p.m., Wednesday through Thursday, and for brunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sundays.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at email@example.com.