Chef Donald Lemperle has worked in his share of fancy kitchens. The former executive chef at Red Square and sous chef at Citizens (both at Mandalay Bay) has built quite the résumé over the past 30 years, even working at New York’s legendary Le Bernadin.
But nine years ago, when Lemperle was diagnosed with multiple myeloma—a cancer of plasma cells in bone marrow—the chef’s diet was the first thing to change. He went the vegan route, cutting all meat, eggs and dairy while adding exercise to his daily routine. And his cooking changed, too.
“This is a challenge,” the 54-year-old chef says. “You don’t just take a dollop of butter or cream and throw foie gras on it. You’ve got to think of other ways to make it taste good.” It’s a risk he’s more than happy to take with his new Downtown restaurant, the plant-based Vegenation.
Inside the quaint, earthy space, plants hang from the ceiling and adorn the walls, giving it a fresh, modern vibe. But the kitchen is where the magic happens, with creations like vegan bao, steamed dumplings, gnocchi and the Downtown Tony portobello sliders (Vegenation is partners with Downtown Project).
Lemperle calls his menu “global street food.” In addition to pastas, pizzas and tacos, there are starters like the beautiful Save the Tuna roll ($6.95), with purple forbidden rice, avocado, cucumber, red pepper, wasabi aioli and ginger-carrot purée. The Hot Tamale, a mixture of organic masa, fragrant pumpkin, lentils and green chiles is the perfect combo of texture and heat ($5.95). For dessert, the chocolate tacos ($7) are a must—miniature phyllo dough tortillas hug a thick layer of chocolate mousse, strawberries and coconut, topped with a salted-caramel drizzle.
Lemperle uses local vendors for his ingredients whenever possible. The surprisingly delicious feta is from local vegan cheesemakers Virgin Cheese, the spirits in the “juice-tails” are from Las Vegas Distillery, the juice is from GrassRoots, and herbs are from Bloomin Desert Herb Farm.
It’s an experience that reads friendly and approachable, not granola. And that’s exactly what Lemperle set out to do. “To me, this is more than fashion. This is a total shift in awareness and lifestyle,” Lemperle says. “The biggest carnivore in the world can come here and still feel satisfied.”
Vegenation 616 Carson Ave. #120, 702-366-8515. Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.