By Chloe, Seaport Boulevard, Boston
Between stories of animal rights abuses, health concerns and climate change, there have never been more reasons to cut out meat and dairy products entirely and take on a purely plant-powered lifestyle. And from meatless Mondays to glossy vegan cookbooks, embracing a plant-only diet is becoming both easier and much more appetizing. Hopping aboard this trend is By Chloe, which recently opened its eighth location (and only its second outside New York) in Boston’s Seaport district.
One look at By Chloe’s menu tells you this is vegan food with the training wheels on. Between “burgers” and “BBQ”, “mac n’ cheese” and “meatballs”, you might wonder if you’ve walked into a carnivore convention by mistake. Closer inspection reveals, though, that these meaty mainstays have all been faithfully recreated to omit all animal products: burgers are made out of beans, meatballs out of mushrooms, and so on.
While this might make even the most unrepentant of carnivores feel at home, what results is an odd sort of Turing Taste Test, whereby each dish is inevitably compared to its original omnivorous equivalent. The results of this experiment are a decidedly mixed bag. The shitaake bacon — scattered generously over several different dishes — bore all the saltiness and crunchiness of its pork-based progenitor. But the “Classic Burger” patty — formed of tempeh, lentil, chia and walnuts — was not very bovine, and the sweet potato and cashew mac n’ cheese sauce was more sickly-sweet than savory.
But what was more frustrating than these noble attempts to recreate traditional American fare was the apparent insistence that even food which is already vegan also needed to be tampered with. There aren’t many more distinctive tastes in the vegan palette than the briny, garlicky pickle, yet somehow the one in the burger lacked any sort of bite. The “air-baked” sweet potato fries were a soggy, stodgy affair, and even a staple like ketchup wasn’t spared, with tomatoes — one of the best plant-based sources of umami — replaced by beets for no good reason.
When By Chloe wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, the results were much better. The kale caesar salad was addictive — crunchy kale topped with avocado, the aforementioned fake bacon, and a creamy, peppery dressing which I really couldn’t believe wasn’t dairy. And I would guess that other menu items that sound more like conventional vegan food, like avocado toast and pesto pasta, might also be more satisfying.
All of which makes you wonder whether By Chloe is a missed opportunity. The brush steel decor and faintly high-tech elements (By Chloe will text you when your order is ready) inevitably invite comparisons to Cambridge’s own veggie fast food empire, Clover. But whereas Clover uses meat substitutes sparingly and caringly, focusing more on elevating eggplant than camouflaging cauliflower, By Chloe’s relentless mission of meat mimicry is almost destined to leave you wanting more. In this sense it’s unfortunate that another New York import, Shake Shack, stands between By Chloe and the nearest T stop. Walking past the window on the way home, it’s tempting to feel as though you’ve paid more for less, like buying expensive tickets to a tribute band before finding cheaper seats for the real thing.
But grading on a curve seems necessary in this case. While By Chloe’s methadone-meat more often than loses than wins its self-imposed Imitation Game, it still deserves credit for carving out a niche for vegan food which holds mass appeal. Facing up to the ethical and ecological harms of rearing animals for food is going to be harder and harder to ignore in the years to come. By Chloe’s answer — to create meat without using meat — is laudable. Too bad the fries aren’t fried and the pickles aren’t pickled.