Satsuma hosts Irene Benefit:
Serves up vegan delicacies, community spirit

Here in New Orleans, hurricanes are old hat. Around the Gulf Coast, down in the Caribbean, and over by Florida, we expect these things - devastating though they may be. But when Hurricane Irene demolished half of Vermont last week, everyone was a bit shocked. Everyone including a woman named Story.

Story Adams is a barista at Satsuma Cafe in the Bywater, and is better known in the vegan community as co-owner / co-chef of Cashew Cheesus, an up-and-coming vegan food delivery service. As it happens, she grew up in the small town of Wilmington, Vermont. Wilmington was, sadly, one of the hardest hit towns in the storm. Story's mother owns a business which was destroyed in the disaster, one of many businesses and homes in the area which now share a fate with which New Orleanians are all too familiar.

As is frequently the case in a crisis, while many stand around with their mouths hanging agape wondering What To Do, a few spring to action and pave a path for others. So it was that Story and Cassi Dymond, co-owner of Satsuma, found a way to say "we love you, Vermont" the best way they knew how: with food.

Last Wednesday night, Satsuma sent tidings "From New Orleans to Wilmington, VT with love." While it is normally a warm and inviting space, on this night the cafe's interior was stunningly transformed into a chic and sparking dining room with elegant table settings. A gourmet prix fixe dinner was offered, by reservation, for a few dozen enthusiastic and supportive attendees.

Happily in attendance, I dined with a small table of non-vegans (one of whom was eating the vegan menu anyway, because he "likes to switch it up"). Conversation at our table and around the room was entertaining and good-hearted, and turned frequently both to Vermont's struggles in the days to come and to memories of Katrina. It was impossible not to notice that Irene came on Katrina's anniversary, making New Orleanians that much more empathetic to Vermont's plight.

At $40 a head the overwhelmingly successful fundraiser filled the house, and raised approximately $1500 to help Wilmington's Irene victims. Small though it may me in the vast scheme of things, all in attendance were happy to be making some small contribution to the town's recovery efforts. And many new ideas were sparked around the room as to how to help even more.

As for Story, it was obvious that the support of her friends and co-workers for her home town meant the world to her. Indeed, Satsuma and all of its employees who donated their time and effort to make the event come together must be applauded.

But what of the food?

When I inquired about the event, I was told there would be a "vegan option." Option my foot! The vegan and non-vegan selections were substantially the same, with non-vegan plates sporting small garnishing additions (a bit of cheese here, an oyster there). The notable difference came in the entree, where non-vegans received a dish featuring a fish filet. Every detail was accounted for, down to Earth Balance for the bread.

The full vegan menu, presented on parchment, was as follows:
*Sparkling Wine and Satsuma Cocktail
*Creole Tomato and Red Pepper Bloody Mary "shot"
*Carrot Coconut Soup with Basil Oil
*Roasted Beet Salad with Local Satsumas and Candied Pecans
*Hand-cut Black Pepper Tagliatelle with Basil Pesto, Sundried Tomatoes, Roasted Caramelized Whole Garlic Cloves, and Local Shiitakes
*Pound Cake with Alabama Peaches and Cashew Creme

The first food served was the "bloody mary" - this was truly more of an amuse bouche of gazpacho, and could be served in larger portions as a lovely light lunch option. (Dear Satsuma, that's a hint!) The carrot coconut soup is, I am told, a recipe of Cassi's. Sweet and spicy with just a hint of curry, this cold soup is perfect for a summer evening. It's hard to go wrong with a beet salad, and this one featured enormous slices of gorgeous ruby-red beets as well as candied pecans and satsuma slices, providing a cacophony of colors and flavors.

It's hard to say whether the real star of the meal was the entree or the dessert; each was lovingly crafted and expertly executed. We have Chris Smedley to thank for the delectable vegan tagliatelle, which was enough proof for anyone that pesto need not contain cheese to make tastebuds rejoice.

As for the dessert, a good peach is a good peach as Mother Nature intended, and all you have to do there is not get in her way. The skill comes here: never have I tasted a cashew creme so creamy and smooth! The pound cake as well struck a lovely balance between fluffy and dense, just sweet enough with a hint of warm vanilla. And no surprise: the dessert was created by talented pastry chef Ms. Christina Balzebre (with assistance from Story herself). Christina has made it her life's work to perfect gluten-free and vegan recipes; I look forward to seeing more of her creations at Satsuma and elsewhere.

Wednesday's event serves as a trial run for Satsuma's next phase: the cafe plans to offer dinners two to three nights per week beginning in mid-October. According to Cassi, who owns and runs the establishment with her husband Peter Dymond, offerings will be vegan and vegetarian friendly. Menus will change weekly, and meals will likely begin at 8pm following an earlier cafe closing of 5pm on evenings with dinner service.

All in all, it was an extraordinary evening, and with any luck a sign of great things to come.