When I heard that a veteran cheesemaker opened up a shop selling dairy-free cheese in West Hollywood, I couldn’t wait to try it. The reviews for Vromage were fantastic. I pictured a cozy little spot like the Artisan Cheese Gallery in Studio City, where you can get beautiful sandwiches and salads — but without dairy!
Well, when I walked into Vromage, located in a tiny strip mall on Sunset Boulevard, I was worried. There was no one behind the counter and no menu posted on the wall or printed on paper. After several stressful minutes, a man finally emerged from the kitchen and greeted me. He didn’t introduce himself, but I deduced that he was Youssef Fakhouri, the founder and inventor of Vromage.
“Where’s the menu?” I asked him.
“Right here,” he said, pointing to himself. “What would you like?”
I didn’t even know where to begin. I’m the kind of person who likes to order my food off an iPad so I don’t have to talk to anyone. “Do you make sandwiches?” I asked. Youssef said yes. “What kind?” I asked. This was way too loosey-goosey for me. I was starting to wonder if this Youssef guy was like Willy Wonka and I was going to end up getting turned into a giant blueberry.
At last, Youssef gestured to a chalkboard behind me.
I was confused. What exactly is on this sandwich besides mozzarella or taleggio, and does it really cost $1250? ‘Cause that’s a bit overpriced, if you ask me. (Turns out there was a decimal point missing.) And why is there a paté sandwich on the menu if everything here is vegan?
I had questions. But at this point, I was feeling stupid and hungry. I asked if I could sample some cheeses. First I picked the goat, since I used to love goat cheese and I’d never had dairy-free goat before. Youssef handed me a generous slice on a slip of parchment. It was pure white and had dried herbs around the edges. I tried it. Unbelievable. It had that sharp, tart flavor I’d missed for so long, and the texture was smooth and fluffy. Not as dense as real cheese, almost mousse-like.
“Yum,” I said. “That’s really good.”
“You like it?” said Youssef. “I’ll make you a sandwich.”
And before I could try any other samples or ask him just what he was planning to put on this sandwich, Youssef disappeared into the kitchen again and I was left standing there, hoping he wouldn’t come out with a pumpernickel roll with olives and yellow mustard (all foods I do not enjoy). He didn’t even ask me if I was allergic to anything. The only way to describe how I felt at that moment is… helpless.
But when Youssef came back out a few minutes later with his mystery concoction, it looked delicious.
The sandwich contained nothing but vegan goat cheese, arugula, and sliced heirloom tomatoes on a crusty French baguette (luckily, all foods I do enjoy). An inveterate meat eater, I feared that the lack of protein would leave me hungry and reaching for a snack in an hour. But I was committed at this point, so I took my plate over to the teeny counter by the window and took a bite.
It was fantastic. Everything tasted super-fresh and the goat cheese packed enough flavor to carry that sandwich. Would I have liked some prosciutto or wine-soaked sopressata in there? Hell, yeah. But if you’re a vegan, this is as good as it gets.
And by the way, I wasn’t hungry an hour later. Perhaps the nuts that the cheese was made of provided me with more protein than I’d expected. All of the cheeses at Vromage are nut-based. They don’t contain soy.
Later I tried samples of the spicy cheddar and the brie, but neither were as good as the goat. The spicy cheddar in particular was disappointing because its texture was grainy. I also sampled the vegan “paté,” which tasted odd and nothing like real paté. Apparently, Youssef hasn’t yet perfected the art of imitating liver.
But I liked the goat cheese so much that I bought a chunk of it to take home. Vromage sells all its cheeses by weight, and most of the customers I saw that day came in to take some cheese home for their vegan cocktail parties in Laurel Canyon.
It’s not much of a sit-down restaurant — only a handful of seats and zero atmosphere. But as far as vegan cheese goes, Youssef Fakhouri is on the cutting edge. If you’re willing to hand over the controls to this eccentric cheesemonger, go for it.
VROMAGE ARTISAN CHEESE, 7988 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90046