It’s no secret that chefs and restaurateurs sometimes cultivate reputations for rigidity: egotistically refusing to allow substitutions on orders, denying requests for extra salt, even balking when patrons beg for music to be turned down in a boisterous dining room.

On the other end of that spectrum of inflexibility sits Colleen Kelley, the accommodating owner and head chef of Portland’s Silly’s and its new spinoff, Simply Vegan by Silly’s. Kelley pays attention to every plate that comes back to the kitchen at her flagship restaurant, noting what diners finish off and what they leave behind. She also talks to her customers, requests their feedback and perhaps most impressively, acts on it.

So when the high-top tables and bar seating at Simply Vegan didn’t go over well during the Washington Avenue café’s first few months, she swapped them immediately with patio furniture from Silly’s – a temporary fix. The strictly plant-based restaurant’s menu also reflects her eagerness to revive guests’ favorite dishes, just in a healthier format, like a recent Silly’s summer special of Caesar pasta salad ($6 per pint) that she “veganized” with canola-based Vegenaise and topped with savory, roasted garlic granola.

Moreover, the very concept behind Simply Vegan came from a customer interaction 15 years ago, one she thinks about.

“I was waiting on a table at Silly’s, and a woman told me that the only thing on the entire menu she could eat was a plain salad. Being a new business owner, I was devastated,” she said. “I didn’t know a lot about being vegan, but I swore to myself, ‘That’s never going to happen again.’ ”

First came a fryolator dedicated to vegan dishes exclusively, then menu alterations that demanded patience and an optimistic attitude toward failure. Slowly, Kelley mastered the art of substitution – a blend of tamari and balsamic vinegar in place of Worcestershire sauce (normally brewed with anchovy); simmered seaweed standing in for the sultry umami of fish sauce; even a lacy “fricco” of melted Daiya tapioca-cheese instead of cold cuts. But all that savory recipe rehab was just a prelude to tackling the hard part: baking.

Hand-in-hand with her old friend and head baker, Jeremy Newbert, the two found ways to use applesauce and flax seeds to conquer land where eggs and dairy once prevailed. And in the time it takes a biscuit made with grated, frozen Earth Balance margarine to rise, they had the makings of a second restaurant.

“I’m not a vegan myself,” Kelley said. “I love scallops too much. But I wanted a new vegan outlet to be the kind of place where vegan people can come in and not have to even look at the menu to see what they’re able to eat. They can just come in and say ‘Yay!’ ” Kelley enthused.

She converted a former nonprofit organization’s offices to a nine-seat café, personalizing the space with dulce-de-leche-colored ceiling paint, framed artwork from Cook’s Illustrated magazines and a long display shelf to show off Kelley’s collection of ceramic salt-and-pepper shakers.

At the back is a minute kitchen with a single home range where pickles and chilis are prepared. Nearly everything else comes from Silly’s much more capacious digs down the block. It’s an unusual division of labor – one that isn’t without its hiccups.

As it stands now, Simply Vegan’s staff (usually just a person or two) assemble sandwiches and platters from largely pre-prepared components stored in deli cases and fridges. That may sound simple, but between re-heating, spreading, grilling and toasting, a substantial amount of work is required. When the restaurant is understaffed, as it was each of the three times I visited, it can take upwards of half an hour for dishes to arrive.

Sometimes they’re worth waiting for, like a side of BBQ beans ($4) slow-cooked with cocoa and Moxie to give them a layered, warm-spice complexity, or the Don’t Mock Me Reuben ($12), a well-balanced sandwich made with homemade seitan, crisp pickles and Thousand Island dressing. I enjoyed it almost as much as the Nothing Bettah… Muffaletta ($13), a twist on the New Orleans classic featuring a fat portobello mushroom cap, savory “cheese” fricco and tons of tart giardiniera and olive salad.

Don’t Mock Me Reuben at Simply Vegan by Silly’s. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Yet all three sandwiches were sloppy, and by the time the overloaded staff delivered them, the bottom layer of bread had soaked through on each. The issue isn’t restricted to sandwiches. The I Said Mush ($12) breakfast platter unappetizingly lived up to its name, thanks to a “gravy” (really more of an astringent purée of reconstituted dried mushrooms) that drenched both turmeric-and-paprika-spiced tofu cubes and an once-fluffy biscuit.

So too, my guest’s Wrapping and Rolling Burrito ($10), a dish so waterlogged from wet components (black bean chili, spicy sauce, salsa) that she wound up wearing more than she ate.

“I’d have less on my shirt if I just asked them to throw it at me,” she said.

The Wrangler Veggie Berger with Baked Beans at Simply Vegan by Silly’s.

Eating the You’ve Got Kale sandwich ($12) was a tidier experience. Fillings like chunky pepita-studded white-bean hummus, roasted garlic and greens (including both baby spinach and kale) left the toast crisp, and my lap clean.

And while Simply Vegan’s savory dishes may be uneven in their execution, the café’s baking is consistently top-notch. Everything from surprisingly light French breakfast puffs ($2.25), muffin-style tea cakes baked in square molds, then rolled in melted margarine and cinnamon-sugar, to slices of triple-decker layer cake large enough to feed four. My favorite of these is the lurid grasshopper cake ($6.75) a mint-and-dark-chocolate treat slathered thick in green “butter”cream frosting and crusted with unrestrained fistfuls of crushed Oreo cookies.

The sponge itself makes such an indulgent, tender-crumbed cake base, I laughed out loud when Colleen Kelley told me about its austere origins. “You won’t believe it, but it is based on an old World War II recipe, from back when they really didn’t have any eggs or sugar,” she said.

From that humble starting point, she and Newbert did exactly what you might expect they would: “We took the recipe and experimented, heard what people said and… well, we made changes until we got it right. Listen, this is my 42nd year doing restaurants, but I don’t claim to know everything. I talk to people and see what they like.” It’s a world-class tinkerer’s path to greatness, one that leaves me with confidence that, although Simply Vegan isn’t yet fantastic, it stands a good chance of getting there.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of two 2018 Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association. Contact him at:

[email protected]

Twitter: AndrewRossME

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