RATING |

When you sit down for dinner at Vedge, a glass shooter of soup is sent to greet you. It's usually refreshing in the hot months (a bracing watermelon gazpacho lit with late August basil) or deeply warming in winter (golden-beet borscht). Delicious, comforting, but nothing exceptionally crazy.

"We don't want to rewire peoples' heads too early in the meal," says chef and co-owner Rich Landau.

Too late for that. More than enough carnivore minds have been blown by the sorcery spun with rutabagas, mushrooms, and carrots at Vedge since it opened in its grand Locust Street townhouse manse six years ago, that the elegant satisfaction of a meat-free meal there is no secret. From the portobello carpaccio sparked with caper puree to a parade of "fancy radishes" transformed into sashimi-like glory to cheesecakes and inventive ice creams (flavored with Madeira, halvah, cedar) so good you'd never know they're missing dairy, the groundbreaking vegetable cookery innovated by Landau and his equally brilliant pastry-chef wife, Kate Jacoby, has rightfully garnered national renown.

But what impresses me the most — and the reason Vedge last year ascended to elite, four-bell status — is how this pioneer has continued to refine every detail of its complete dining experience. The space, with sleek modern touches overlaying the historic leaded glass and walnut millwork bones of the old Deux Cheminées just enough, is among the most beautiful in town. The superbly trained service sets a smartly calibrated tone of enthusiasm without being preachy. The produce-centric cocktails (bell pepper shrub, sunchoke tincture) are inventive and fun. The standout global wine list is a leading showcase for natural wines.

More important, this profoundly creative kitchen, which has come so far from its primitive mock-meat roots beside a health-food market in Willow Grove, has never ceased to evolve. An avocado becomes a study in textures, a creamy green vessel dusted with crumbled rice-cracker snow, then filled with tiny cauliflower florets pickled in curry. A deep wood smoke and pastrami spice turn a huge carrot into a Reubenesque delight atop pumpernickel with carrot kraut, carrot kimchi, and carrot mustard. Eggplant sheets are spun into a casing for the sausagelike braciole stuffed with rice and smoked vegetables.

Pole beans bask in tangy vindaloo heat. Woodsy maitake plumes are roasted crisp beside celery-root fritters and smoked leek rémoulade. And unsung rutabagas are transformed miraculously into a silky "fondue" (for fresh pretzels) that has the uncanny taste and texture of molten cheese.

That faux-Whiz is a key to the quick-serve seitan-mushroom steak sandwich concept, Wiz Kid, that Landau and Jacoby launched beside their awesome ode to international street foods, V Street, this year. It was also a secret ingredient in the "cheesy rutabaga mashed potatoes" that were featured in the vegan Thanksgiving feast that Vedge was commissioned to create this fall for more than 450 Whole Foods Markets across the country.

Who knew a Philadelphia chef on Locust Street could single-handedly make rutabaga futures turn to gold? If you've eaten the magical creations from Landau and Jacoby over the years at Vedge, it is really no surprise.