SCHENECTADY — When my friend Suzanne and I met for lunch at Take Two Café across the street from Proctors, we were psyched about the vegan menu, as we are both into a lifestyle that’s low on meat and high on veggies.
I also heard that owner Chelsea Heilmann is a kitchen wizard whose superpower is turning traditional comfort foods — like mac and cheese, and bagels with lox and cream cheese — into plant-based versions.
Last year, when I chatted with her for a Gazette story about vegan holiday meals, she was busy baking “chicken” pot pies and dairy-free pumpkin pies on Jay Street at her Square One Café, Schenectady’s first vegan restaurant.
Square One closed last January due to a failed business partnership, but Heilmann bounced back in May, opening Take Two around the corner, in the former home of Cocobar.
Suzanne arrived first and grabbed a table for two next to the window overlooking State Street.
On a cold day, we were cheered by the noonday sun and a bright yellow kalanchoe plant on the table. Take Two offers six window seats and two tables beyond the counter.
On the Monday we stopped in, every seat was taken and there was a queue for takeout, but after the lunch rush the tables opened up again. If you linger, as we did, know that there is no restroom.
Stepping up to the counter to order, menus in hand, we had some questions. Thankfully, the counter guy was incredibly patient.
“On the Reuben, what is the pastrami made of?” I asked.
“Seitan,” he said.
Suzanne asked about the choice of milk in the Chai Tea Latte.
“Soy, oat, almond, hazelnut or coconut,” he said.
We returned to our sunny table, Suzanne with her chai, me with a steamy cup of Earl Grey, and waited for our sandwiches to arrive.
Our first pleasant surprise was the generous servings. My Reuben was a marble-rye monster, thick with sauerkraut, gooey cheese and the faux pastrami.
I liked that the seitan, which is sometimes called “wheat meat,” as it’s made from wheat gluten, was thinly sliced. Perhaps I’m a fuddy-duddy, but I like my Reuben with the good ol’ Russian dressing of mayo, ketchup and pickle relish. And I like to taste the sauerkraut. This kicked up sauce was too spicy.
I asked Suzanne to take a nibble.
“It’s not too much for me,” she said. “I like it.”
My side, a very chunky potato salad with a velvety chipotle dressing, had just the right heat and was one of the best sides I’ve eaten in a while.
But it was Suzanne’s Caprese Sandwich, with sun-dried tomato pesto, basil pesto, mozzarella, fresh tomato and balsamic glaze on sourdough (gluten-free is an option), that really showcased Heilmann’s talents.
The earthy, herby basil pesto, so green and fresh, was slathered between crispy grilled bread that oozed mozzarella.
“Isn’t it good?” said the smiling Suzanne.
Her side, mac and cheese, was the piece de resistance, as it was ultra-creamy and featured a hearty, shell-shaped pasta. Vegan or not, anyone could become addicted to this.
Again we quizzed the counter guy.
“Are your customers mostly vegans and vegetarians?”
“More than half of our customers are not vegan,” he said. “And some people come in here and have no idea that it’s vegan.”
Suzanne, who has a son and grandchildren who eat plant-based food, was impressed.
“I’ve had vegan in the city [NYC] and it wasn’t as good as this,” she said. “And I’m glad they use cardboard and paper, and not plastic.”
Take Two also uses Capital Region suppliers such as Divinitea (tea), Rock Hill Bakehouse (bread), Sweet Eats (dairy- and gluten-free desserts), Berben & Wolff’s (plant-based “meats”) and Stacks Espresso Bar (coffee).
According to Take Two’s website, there are many reasons to skip meat, even if it’s just once a week on Meatless Monday, an international campaign promoted by Beatle Paul McCarthy.
Before my friend and I said goodbye, we couldn’t resist a few take-home goodies from the dessert case: lemon-pistachio biscotti, a chocolate-coconut-oatmeal haystack and a ginger molasses cookie. Offerings change daily and some are gluten-free.
The next day, Suzanne emailed me. She was still curious about the melty mozzarella on her sandwich.
“Please ask if all their cheese is plant-based,” she said.
“We are 100 percent vegan,” came the answer on Facebook.
Take Two Café
WHERE: 433 State St., Schenectady; 518-280-9670; taketwo518.com, Facebook, Instagram
WHEN: 7 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $35 for sandwiches and drinks
MORE INFO: Indoor dining, takeout, Mealeo pickup/delivery, credit cards accepted, outdoor seating