For those of us who limit our consumption to all things green, social eating can at times seem daunting. In a world where even salads aren't vegan, Southern California may be a culinary haven, but the choices soon become redundant. It's exciting to move beyond the standard veggie burger to a menu filled with creative versions of now forbidden favorites. Because when you're a vegan in a carnivore's world, it's a rare place where the protein is tempeh and the gravy is mushroom.
Jyoti-Bihanga in artsy Normal Heights is just such a place. Though its name is imposing, the restaurant itself is peaceful and understated. Large windows dominating the walls brighten the white interior during the day and illuminate a large portrait of Sri Chinmoy, the spiritual teacher of the restaurant's owners and inspiration for its peaceful vibe and cruelty free menu.
Sri Chinmoy entered a spiritual community in India at the age of 12 and remained there for 20 years. There he practiced meditation and studied poetry and song, learning the value that they could have for humanity. Feeling a calling to move to America and share his wisdom, he followed his heart to New York City, offering his guidance for free - instead making money off of his writing. Today he has followers all over the world, but still presents his public lectures, meditations, and spiritual guidance free of charge.
It is in the spirit of Sri Chinmoy that Sujantra McKeever offers free meditation classes to the public twice a week at the Pilgrimage of the Heart Yoga Studio, just one block from Jyoti-Bihanga. I decide to attend his Tuesday night class because it presents basic techniques designed to tame wandering minds. It’s appropriate for aspiring meditation students such as myself and also happens to be the perfect prelude to a mindful meal.
It's fortunate that the studio at Pilgrimage is spacious, because McKeever has quite a following himself. Students flood in just before 7:30 and the floor rapidly becomes a sea of cushions and chairs. McKeever’s gentle greeting is enough to fade the hum of conversation into silence and the class begins with a reading about Siddhartha. Over the course of the next hour he presents several meditation techniques utilizing various mantras and visual stimuli to keep our minds focused.
The hour passes quickly once I've managed to disentangle myself from my own thoughts and we close with a round of chanting that melts away the last bits of negative energy hiding within my blissed-out body. As I put away my chair after class, I feel as dreamy as if I’d just returned from a slow stroll on the moon. And as is usual after trips to such heights, my previously empty mind now develops one thought: dinner.
Jyoti-Bihanga is about half full when I enter with my friends. We all order a cup of the Nirvana tea, a custom blend of 4 secret herbs. I’m in danger of floating off again after a few sips, so I quickly ground myself by opening the menu. It’s extensive for such a small place and the vegan options are clearly marked. The daily specials are also displayed on a board by the kitchen, providing new choices for even regular customers.
I shy away from their most famous dish, the “neatloaf,” and instead order the Blue Plate Special, a meal of steamed vegetables, brown rice, and tamari-tofu sauce. It comes with a choice of soup or salad and I order the lentil soup. I also get to try my friend’s cream of broccoli, which is surprisingly vegan. Both are light, fresh and equally delicious.
When our entrees arrive the look of the portabello quesadillas almost makes me wish I ate cheese but I remain true to my beliefs and dive into today's curry, a spinach saag with mock chicken. It could easily be mistaken as the real thing hidden in the rich but mildly spiced dish. My own plate is a heaping pile of steamed vegetables and perfectly cooked brown rice. I must have developed a case of karmic munchies because I inhale the entire thing.
Luckily they are out of their vegan chocolate mousse cake, because I can’t eat another bite. My friends order the berry tiramisu and rice pudding and the portions that are served up are as immense as they are enticing. These all natural creations thankfully only look like an entry in “This is Why You’re Fat,” but still they barely manage to finish half. When our bill arrives my wallet hasn’t been hit nearly as hard as my belt and I leave satisfied and ready for a deep sleep.
It's been a night of spiritual, physical, and gastronomical nourishment, a practice I could easily keep.