Veg out at Shayna B’s By the Sea
I confess I had mixed feelings about my latest food mission to Shayna B’s By the Sea, a vegan café in Old Saybrook. I enjoy vegetarian fare, but I tend to eschew foods of the wheat-free, vegan variety, not because I object to the associated ethos, but because sometimes there isn’t enough carob in the world to make an eggless confection into a “dessert.”
Apparently I’ve been barking up the wrong vegan trees, because if I slipped you a Shayna B cupcake, I would bet the farm you wouldn’t tag it as vegan. Seriously. Indeed, we either truly enjoyed or, in one case, didn’t dislike, everything we sampled with one tiny exception, and that was a free condiment. (Vegan cream cheese is neither creamy nor cheesy.)
At first glance, one might balk at the prices, but I’m willing to pay for well-sourced, organic ingredients. It’s all I can do to get vegetables onto my usual dinner plate, so if someone has the skill to turn them into amazing baked goods and dishes, I’ll invest a bit on that meal. Naturally, I balanced out all that healthy goodness with some of Shayna B’s desserts.
Note: Dessert occasionally is my first course (don’t judge me), so we’ll start with the cupcakes here. The first sign of a good cupcake, for me, is the height of the icing atop it. At Shayna B’s, the baker does not skimp on the frosting, and even more important, it tasted like: frosting! Sugar apparently needs no dairy to be transformed into a tasty topping. Countering the sweetness was a very light, almost citrus-y flavor to the frosted mounts on each of the cupcakes we tried: a Banana Bread (no nuts) and a Chocolate with vanilla frosting ($5 each and rather large). And while sometimes the cake part of a cupcake can fall short, that’s not the case chez Shayna B. The Banana Bread cupcake, a fairly dense but very moist, almost-muffin-like item, bursts with fall-spice flavors. The chocolate cupcake was deeply chocolate-y, moist, and just as satisfying as one of the un-vegan variety.
The cinnamon bun ($3.25 and on the smaller side) and Tonya Special Cookie (think Peanut Butter Blossom; $2.25 each) were similarly subtle and delicious. I might have detected a slight hint of the ingredient substitution vegan fare requires in the cookie, but something that awash in deep, sweet-salty peanut butter flavor will win over any PB fan. As for the chocolate candy on top of it, the soft, almost sandy cookie base beat it out by a long shot. The cupcake delivers a much better chocolate fix. We had no complaints about the cinnamon roll, which was bursting with cinnamon flavor and well constructed from a flaky, tasty dough.
When I finally decided to eat like an adult, I started with some soup. On both visits, there were two to three soups on offer, alongside a long list of sammies and salads, which included a bagel and soup combo. The bagels are house-made, and I just had to know if there’s any such thing as an edible gluten-free vegan bagel, so I paired spring pea soup with a plain bagel ($11.50) and quickly learned that, yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as an edible vegan bagel. Far from tasting like the cardboard I feared, the bagel presented unique, nuanced flavor — more than many of the traditional variety I’ve tried. Be aware that the texture of this “bagel” was more akin to a crumpet crossed with Irish soda bread. When toasted, it’s very, very good and a great tool for soup sampling.
Indeed, I enjoyed the bagel more than the spring pea soup by a decent margin. While I appreciated the fresh, green flavor of the peas, I felt it needed something else to complement all that green flavor. This soup is the item that fell into the “didn’t dislike” category, but I will add that my husband loved it. By contrast, I loved the Moraccan Lentil Stew ($3 for a small), and he said it “didn’t come together” for him. I generally love lentil soups, and Shayna B’s does a wonderful job with this type, with a belly-warming spice mix, including cinnamon and what I suspect is a hearty dose of cumin, and a lively blend of perfectly prepped beans, tomato, butternut squash, and carrots, stewed to soft perfection.
In the non-dessert category, two unexpected favorites emerged. When you hear “noodle salad topped with tofu,” you might not think “best dish ever.” Fortunately, Shayna B’s called their noodle salad topped with tofu The Buddha Bowl ($13, with enough for two), and it’s an excellent combination of rice noodles, Napa cabbage, cucumbers, shredded carrots, greens, a bit of seaweed, and, of course, tofu — large triangles of it for all your protein-seeking purposes. The fabulous mix of textures alone is enough to recommend this dish; a forkful of crunchy veggies anchored by chewy (but not too chewy) tofu plus the refreshing palatability of the noodles is plenty to keep your taste buds occupied. Add a dash of the accompanying sesame vinaigrette — a pungent, nutty mixture — and you’ll likely turn vegan on the spot.
I’ve heard folks say “oh, I love their hummus wrap” about one eatery or another, and I, grilled cheese in hand, have been impressed by their embrace of good clean food. I now join their ranks, because the red pepper hummus wrap at Shayna B’s is delicious ($11; served with Hippeas chickpea puffs). There’s much to be said for fresh hummus (P.S. The other hummus of the day was black-eyed pea hummus), but for the sake of brevity, I’ll just say fresh hummus makes all the difference in a hummus wrap. Shayna B’s was silky, with bright notes of pepper and lemon that accented the flavor of the lettuce, shredded carrot and tomato that filled the rest of the wrap.
If a cheese-loving dessert-hound like me can experience this level of enjoyment at an eatery, it’s likely you can, too. Put aside any preconceived notions of kale toast with tempeh squares and treat yourself to the inventive, healthy, tasty fare at Shayna B’s.
Shayna B’s By the Sea
247 Main St., Old Saybrook
Cuisine: Vegan and gluten-free baked goods, sandwiches, soups, and more
Atmosphere: Bold wall colors and funky live-edge wooden furniture create a cheerful and inviting vibe.
Service: Very friendly and efficient
Prices: You will find cheaper cupcakes and lunches elsewhere, but many will gladly pay for the quality of Shayna B’s non-GMO, responsibly sourced eats.
Hours of operation: Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Credit cards: Accepted
Handicapped access: No stairs to enter, plenty of parking in lot. It's not the largest cafe, but the interior is spacious.
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