I don’t even know where to start.
I’ll try to keep this post brief so I don’t get all emotional. The restaurant in question is Balasia, located (for the next 3 or so weeks, anyway) at 500 Chestnut St. in Emmaus. It is the best food I have ever had in my entire life. It’s exotic vegan cuisine, the produce organic and local, and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. Balasia opened my eyes to flavor, spice, and the combining of ingredients I never thought possible. But Balasia is about so much more than food – it’s about love, community, health, LIFE, I could go on and on. And now, due to some perhaps questionable circumstances, the love that is Balasia will be moving to a yet-to-be disclosed location. As of mid-February, the 500 Chestnut St. location will be no more (I’m trying hard to keep my mouth shut, here). So I suggest each and every one of you take this opportunity to drop what you’re doing and go there, immediately. I know I will be soaking up the Balasia goodness for the next few weeks while I can. And then, come mid-February… well, there will be a giant tofu-shaped hole in the Lehigh Valley and I have yet to figure out how I will survive the hiatus.
I’ve taken millions of pictures of Balasia food over the past 2+ years. Wendy Landiak, the genius chef, is such an artist with her presentation that I felt the food just had to be photographed. Above is the Tofu Dill Burger, it was a special that particular day, and never seen on the menu again. It was outstanding. Layers of crispy fresh greens, spicy karachi dal, brown rice, and spice-infused oil topped with that beautifully caramelized mound of tofu, crusted with mustard and cumin seeds, with some sort of tomato chutney and caramelized onions on top. Chickpeas, boondi, cashews, carrots and who knows what else were also sprinkled through the dish. Each bite was a complex taste explosion, and every element of the dish complimented everything else so perfectly.
The West African Peanut Soup. I’ve attempted recreating this soup on my own many many times, as I tend to crave it every day of my life, and I’m thrilled to say my latest attempt came pretty darn close. Nothing can compare with the original though. It is a perfectly smooth sweet potato puree, nutty, a little sweet, with hints of garlic and ginger, topped with maple syrup, dried roasted red pepper flakes, sunflower seeds and sesame seeds. Don’t shy away from the red pepper flakes; they’re not hot, they’re delicious (they’re bell peppers not hot peppers, a huge misconception). Every time I get this soup, I fight the urge to lick the bowl afterwards.
One of the amazing things about Balasia is Wendy will make you whatever you want. If you’re feeling adventurous and want to go off-menu, just tell her what you’re in the mood for and she’ll create it. This delicious mound of goodness pictured above was one of my crazy requests; I asked her for some 5 spice tofu (I don’t know what’s in that 5 spice peanut sauce but it’s freaking extraordinary) crusted with mustard seeds, on top of a bed of rice noodles drenched in a slightly tangy miso sauce, coconut flakes sprinkled throughout, and an Indian samosa on the side.
This was a SALAD a friend of mine ordered once… so in case you were wondering, the soups and salads here are full meals in themselves. This was a simple and delicious dish, fresh, crisp and light, hints of miso and ginger in the dressing. I can’t remember what the little side dish contained but I’m sure it was good.
Speaking of soups being full meals in themselves, the Indonesian Potato Stew offers up so much bulk and yumminess that you probably wouldn’t be able to squeeze in an entree after eating it. The lemongrass-infused coconut milk broth provides a flavorful base for the huge chunks of veggies and rice noodles, and the coconut flakes and bean sprouts on top give the soup a perfect little crunch. Hearty and satisfying!
This was the Indian-inspired Eggplant Masala dish, with karachi dal, crisp methi crackers and a samosa covered in sweet mango chutney. Clearly this was enough food for at least 2 meals, and I enjoyed it very much for lunch the next day. If possible, the food gets even more delicious after stewing for a day or so.
The Curi-yaki Tofu, a blend of curry and teriyaki-marinated tofu, crusted with fennel, cumin seeds and red pepper flakes, on a bed of brown rice and kale so incredibly flavorful and tasty you’d never know it was kale. Now I am all about incorporating dark leafy greens into my diet, but greens don’t exactly taste wonderful, and somehow Wendy makes them delicious. If she ever has kale or cabbage somewhere on the menu, I promptly request she lay it on me. Who knew healthy food could be SO GOOD!
I’m still in a bit of denial that 500 Chestnut will soon be no more, but I know whatever Wendy does in the future will be better for her, better for the restaurant and better for her followers. I’m excited and nervous for Balasia, and I can’t wait to see how this whole thing will turn out. In the meantime, however, I will be eating at Balasia every minute of every day until it closes, soaking up the experience while I can. I suggest you all do the same.
One last note – I know people are used to fast food for dirt cheap prices in this silly day and age, and that’s not the type of establishment we are talking about here. Wendy creates complex, time consuming, high quality meals and serves you portions large enough to feed 2-3 people, so you won’t be paying $5 for lunch here. Expect to pay around $9-$15 for lunch, and $20-$35 for dinner. But also keep in mind that Wendy wants people to experience her cuisine, and if you’re on a budget, just let her know and she’ll make you something in your price range. That’s the kind of restaurant Balasia is, and it’s a beautiful thing.
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