Celesta finds a home on East Side’s vegan scene
Growing up in a military family, Melanie Manuel grew accustomed to moving around long before she began her series of pop-up dinners.
In 2015, Manuel’s Beatrix Foods began popping up at breweries, weddings, art shows and small family events. Her veganfriendly bar food quickly found a following.
Eventually, the popularity of Beatrix Foods outgrew its nomadic life, prompting Manuel to leave her day job as an English teacher and plant roots on Milwaukee’s East Side with a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Celesta Restaurant opened June 12 in a space at 1978 N. Farwell Ave. formerly occupied by Jow Nai Fouquet.
Celesta brings unique, affordable options to the East Side’s growing roster of vegan-friendly restaurants. Currently, none of the food items exceed $15.
Manuel’s goal is to appeal to vegans and non-vegans by offering hearty, satisfying dishes. Her menu includes such entrées as a turkey club, made with seitan and smokeflavored tempeh ($12), and lasagna made with rosemary-sage “sausage” ($14).
Drawing from her love for Asian cuisine, she offers ramen with a broth that includes a concentrate of garlic, ginger, shallots, white miso, chili oil, tamari and sunflower seeds. “It’s for people who want a nuanced ramen dish,” Manuel says. “The flavors are a little delicate, with a lighter touch.”
Another light option is the “community bowl,” with rotating ingredients. Variations have included a bowl with kimchi, tofu, pickled vegetables and rice, as well as a noodle bowl with lentil Bolognese.
For her first dinner special, Manuel chose Callaloo Rundung, a Jamaican dish consisting of rice and kidney beans cooked in coconut milk and covered with a creamy, garlicky vegetable stew.
Celesta also has appetizer and dessert specials.
The restaurant has a full bar stocked with locally sourced beer, liquor and spirits. For cocktails, Manuel went with vegetable-forward flavors. For example, The Uprising ($9) combines Organic Twisted Path Vodka with fresh basil and tomatoes. She’s kept Abu’s Rosewater Lemonade ($4), which gained popularity when it was a staple at Abu’s, a Middle Eastern restaurant that occupied the space before Jow Nai.
Manuel believes the proliferation of sustainable food restaurants on the East
Side is part of a larger social movement. “Healthy eating — and in particular vegan and vegetarianism — is not just a trend,” she says. “People are just so much more aware of their dining choices (in terms of) environmental impact.”
And while Manuel believes those dining choices are important, she isn’t passing up the opportunity to have fun along the way. For instance, come football season, she wants to offer homemade vegan baked ham and rolls.
“People take food so seriously, but I want to invite a playfulness to it,” Manuel says.