SAVANNAH’S first ever all-vegan restaurant opened March 8. While many restaurants and cafés supply vegan offerings, Natural Selections Café is 100 percent plant-based.
Owned and operated by St. Thomas native Davida Harris, this vegan café is already altering stereotypes. Not only has Harris pioneered the vegan food scene, she decided to shake it up a bit by integrating soul food into her vegan menu.
“Southern flair—that was the whole point,” Harris explained. “Savannah is heavy on tourism and tourists come here to eat southern food. I wanted to make sure that folks could have the Savannah experience while they were eating here.”
With a Ph.D. in Sociology, Harris spent 10 years as a college professor at Savannah State University. Although she had been vegetarian for several years, Harris began researching natural ways to help her body heal after developing heath issues.
This, coupled with a few persuasive documentaries on veganism, caused Harris to throw away thousands of dollars worth of food and become a devoted vegan.
As someone who appreciates food, Harris “wanted to continue eating food, while finding a way to make it healthier”.
Three years ago, Harris established her own catering business called Natural Selections in Savannah. Last summer, she catered an event for 450 guests, preparing vegan fare in her small kitchen.
“After that, I promised myself that I would never cook like that in my kitchen again.”
This event prodded Harris to look for a commercial catering space that did not process or prepare meat. To no avail, she settled on her current space at 1526 Bull St., a few doors down from Henny Penny Art Space & Café.
There seems to be a common theme among caterers that purchase their own kitchen: a front of the house eatery.
Harris followed suit and introduced Savannah to Natural Selections Café and Catering. “The front of the house is going better than I ever thought.”
“This is a completely plant-based restaurant. No meat. I want nothing to do with meat.”
“Any product that you have had on the meat side, I can duplicate that with plant-based food.”
While this café resides in a neighborhood among SCAD students, Harris reveals that her most prevalent clientele are middle-aged folks.
Even more, people are coming as far as Bluffton and Hilton Head to graze on the café’s plant-based cuisine.
As far as the food is concerned, Harris boasts, “I make everything fresh and from scratch.” Southern classics like mac and cheese, collard greens and grits are prepared with high-quality ingredients that satisfy both meat-eaters and plant-eaters alike.
Top-of-the-line vegan products are utilized when fresh fruits, veggies and nuts cannot imitate the textures necessary for certain dishes.
For example, omelets and breakfast wraps are made with Veganegg, a 100% plant-based egg replacer that not only looks like eggs, but fluffs up like them as well.
A comforting Grilled Cheeze sandwich gets it stringy nostalgia from a mixture of Daiya “cheeses.” This is a product that is dairy, gluten and soy free, offering an assortment of cheeses that are shredded, sliced and blocked.
Hearty sandwiches with facon (fake bacon) and faux sausage get their meaty consistency from seitan, a product made from wheat-gluten. Given that it mocks the texture of meat and is high in protein, seitan has become a popular substitution for tofu.
A special featuring the “Not Steak Philly Cheeze,” incorporated peppery seitan sausage, sautéed onions and peppers and an ooey-gooey cheese sauce, all on a soft wheat roll. One bite and the sausage crumbled in my mouth, bursting with familiar flavors.
The vegan-cheese sauce was made from soaking almonds and cashews in water. The nuts were then blended with almond milk, nutritional yeast and liquid smoke, producing a thick velvety white sauce that emulated melted cheese in the best of ways.
Another crowd pleaser that contains seitan is the “Not Chicken Salad Sandwich.” This refreshing summer favorite could fool even the biggest cynics, with its creamy combination of seitan, Veganaise, mustard, green onion, celery and red pepper. This mixture is topped with spinach and tomato, all served on Naan bread.
While certain pre-packaged vegan products are helpful in imitating a certain mouth feel, Harris shows innovation with other menu items that stand out as favorites among her patrons. Take the “Crabbie Cake Sandwich,” which, as you guessed, does not have any traces of crab.
Harris utilizes hearts of palm to replicate the flaky texture of crab. The moist patty is seasoned with gluten-free panko, peppers, onion, celery and Old Bay, utilizing flavors traditionally found in this seafood staple.
Let’s not forget the “Mac & Cheeze.” Harris makes it fresh every single day, but sells out of it as quickly as she can whip it up. We all know what macaroni and cheese should taste like.
After a forkful, all I could think was, “Come on, are you sure this is vegan?” It was that good.
Anyone can buy store-bought vegan products and plant-based ingredients. Nevertheless, Harris excels at combining these ingredients into inspiring and delectable meals.
Her personal investment into veganism transcends every dish, destroying antiquated perceptions about vegan fare. Harris has succeeded in bringing good-for-you soul food to Savannah.