Step into the new Shouk and you’ll see a number of things: Shelves of Middle Eastern products such as date syrup and za’atar, exposed brick walls and customers chowing down on house-made pitas stuffed with fillings that include roasted cauliflower, sauteed mushrooms and lentil patties.
What you most definitely will not see: meat, dairy or eggs.
You also won’t see the word “vegan.” Anywhere.
Instead, your only tip-off to the overriding philosophy governing this new fast-casual spot from first-time restaurateur Ran NussbÃ¤cher is an understated line on the bottom of the wall-mounted menu: “Shouk food is 100% plant-based. It is (whatever your diet is) €“ friendly.”
NussbÃ¤cher began dropping animal products from his own diet and for the last four or five years has been adhering to what he calls a “compassionate lifestyle.”
He doesn’t like the word “vegan.” He knows it can be an off-putting word to some diners. Often, the perception “is that we’re giving up a whole lot.”
That being said, not using the V-word wasn’t necessarily a specific marketing strategy. Instead, NussbÃ¤cher said it was about “letting the product speak for itself.”
NussbÃ¤cher grew up in Israel, which he said exposed him to a diet that naturally leans toward fresh produce and legumes — the stars of the pitas, rice and lentil bowls and salads at Shouk.
“It wasn’t about being a vegan business,” NussbÃ¤cher said of his offerings. “It wasn’t about veganizing dishes.”
The only thing that comes close to imitating a dairy product is the cashew labneh, a Lebanese yogurt cheese, made here with only cashews, water and salt.
“We’re not using any quirky ingredients to make it taste like cheese,” NussbÃ¤cher said.
Sticky Fingers bakery proprietor Doron Petersan knows something aboutvegan cheese, too. She’ll be incorporating cashew, coconut and almond variations into some dishes at her pending diner, Fare Well, on H Street NE. She’s taking a similar approach to marketing as NussbÃ¤cher.
“I’m not using the term vegan at all,” she said. “I really want people to focus on the veggie- and plant-based aspect of what we’re doing.”
“I think that while people are becoming more and more open to trying plant-based foods,” she said, the vegan label “does a disservice.”
NussbÃ¤cher said he thinks D.C. is particularly receptive to these kinds of concepts, and “there’s no question that the market is right and the time is right,” for him to be opening Shouk, especially following the success of such establishments as JosÃ© AndrÃ©s’s vegetable-focused, fast-casual Beefsteak.
NussbÃ¤cher said the key was not to just put his food on a level playing field with non-vegan dishes, but make it better to counter any skepticism. (Allow us to chime in: No need to be skeptical of the food at Shouk, which is, overall, well-executed.) The occasional diner will ask where the chicken is, but “I feel that we have been very, very warmly received,” NussbÃ¤cher said. “I didn’t know what to expect.” Some of the reaction is best described as “pleasant surprise,” he said.
No matter the label, Petersan said, “People are really just looking for good food.”