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.

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 five years ago, that the 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 (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 acclaim.

But what impresses the most — and the reason Vedge now ascends to elite, four-bell status — is how this pioneer has continued to refine every detail of its dining experience.

The space, with sleek modern touches overlaying the historic bones of the old Deux Cheminées, is among the most beautiful in town. The superbly trained service sets a calibrated tone of enthusiasm without being preachy. The produce-centric cocktails (bell pepper shrub, sunchoke tincture) are inventive and fun. The 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. 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.

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 will be a key to their quick-serve concept, Wiz Kid, which was launched inside a Whole Foods this fall and will be set up next to V Street.

If it hits as big as I suspect, rutabaga futures could go gold. Vedge already has.