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A Vegan in Paradise
Some enchanted evening you will go to Luau

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Coral Von Zumwalt

I love a good tropical vacation any time of year (who doesn’t?), and an evening at Luau is like slipping away to Bali. The lights are warm and low, the roof and walls are thatched, and it feels sexy and quietly festive. Everywhere I look, there is an outstretched Buddha hand in some various mudra, reminding me to be peaceful, kind and joyous.

I take all of this into account as I sidle up to the bar to meet my girlfriends, and before I can even ask about the fare, we are sipping from a pineapple filled with its very own freshly squeezed juice, coconut water and rum (called a Bahia) and a giant tiki bowl with a deceptively potent mix of orange and lime juice, rum, gin and cognac (a Scorpion Bowl).

With me are Oscar-nominated (Sideways) actress Virginia Madsen, jewelry maker to the stars Loree Rodkin (she designed the place, and Luau’s Blue Loree drink is named after her) and Susan Smalley, a professor and scientist at UCLA. I’ve asked this diverse group to join me as I continue on my quest to challenge restaurateurs and notable chefs to concoct a fabulous vegan meal that anyone—not just a vegetarian—would find irresistible.

Virginia was all for it, saying she was veg for years before getting pregnant and is keen on the ethical stance of not causing suffering to an animal. “So why did you change when you got pregnant?” I ask.

“Because as soon as I was with child, I could think of nothing but chicken,” she says. “My body screamed out for it, so I figured I must need something I’m not getting by eating just plants.”

Hmmm. I wonder if she’s read Dr. Neal Barnard, president and founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, who says the evidence shows cravings generally don’t have anything to do with deficiencies. In his view, a yearning for bacon or chicken doesn’t mean your body is crying out for protein or iron, and a pull toward chocolate isn’t a sign that you’re lacking something sweets offer—it has more to do with hormonal shifts, because hormones affect the brain’s appetite centers.

I love Virginia’s spirit. She is a bit of a rebel and fiercely opinionated (and, of course, talented), even while she’s the most down-to-earth mom who wants all the neighborhood kids to gather at her house. She assures me she sneaks in vegetarian versions of chicken and bacon all the time and that her teenage son polishes it off without pause.

I had called ahead to ask owner Andy Hewitt (of Il Sole renown) if he might consider putting together some vegan dishes for our night on the town. He not only agreed but took an entourage of his staff—including executive chef Mako Tanaka—on a quest to find the best and tastiest source of plant-based protein that would fit their “Balin-Asian” template. After much testing, they settled on using a small amount of tofu, while focusing mainly on tempeh, a cultured soy product that is just about the healthiest thing you can eat.

For appetizers, Tanaka serves fresh summer rolls—thinly sliced vegetables and tofu wrapped in rice paper and served with a peanut-lime hoisin sauce—and curried-vegetable lettuce cups with crispy tofu and shiitake mushrooms. As a main course, he presents a tempeh curry served with basmati rice, pineapple chutney and naan. He’s also come up with pineapple-glazed tempeh balls (think meatballs on a stick).

I nearly weep at the feast laid before us. Is it the rum, or is it the fact that I am eating the most delectable food I’ve had in a long time, knowing that not a single creature was harmed in the process? I’m not sure, but the gals and I are swooning. Even Loree, more a “vegetarian who sometimes eats meat,” is in gastronomic heaven. I ask if she thinks these dishes will become all the rage (and trust me, Loree knows from “all the rage”). “I think people want to eat more consciously,” she deadpans. “For the environment, for their health and for the sake of their karma.” The queen of cool is spotting a trend—my heart soars!

Between bites, Susan reminds me she went vegetarian after an experience with cancer about seven years ago. She had been a staunch academic, shunning the seeming silliness of the granola crowd, but in that life-and-death pocket, she saw that her body was reflecting a life out of balance. In a flash, she grasped how all of life is intertwined by our shared DNA and how what is good for our individual bodies is also good for the planet. Since then, she founded the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA, which teaches students and staff alike to meditate and apply their growing consciousness to their personal lives, studies and physical habits. She feels the more you become mindful, the more conscious your food choices will be—and that means good health for the body, mind and soul.

Amen, professor. Now let’s get back to the feast!

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