On Friday, the fast-casual Clover Food Lab in Cambridge began selling a meatless meatball sandwich. The catch is that, unless you know otherwise, you might not realize it’s meatless at all, according to Clover founder Ayr Muir.
Listed on the menu as Meatball Sandwich (Impossible Burger), its “meat” — which “bleeds” — is made from the Impossible Burger, a Bill Gates-backed, plant-based burger created by Silicon Valley startup Impossible Foods. The company took five years to perfect the recipe before partnering with U.S. restaurants in July 2016 to serve it to the public. It’s now on menus at dozens of restaurants nationwide.
Impossible Foods calls its Impossible Burger “a game changer of a burger.” Experts examined the sights, sounds, aromas, textures, and flavors of a burger before figuring out how to recreate it all without using meat. The burger is made from wheat, coconut oil, and potatoes. But it’s the soy leghemoglobin, also known as “heme,” an iron-containing molecule that the company genetically engineers using yeast and that makes meat “smell, sizzle, bleed, and taste gloriously meaty,” that sets it apart, according to the company.
Impossible Burger is 100 percent free of hormones, antibiotics, and artificial ingredients, and uses 95 percent less land, 74 percent less water, and 87 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than it would if made with cows, the company reports.
Muir said he first tried the Impossible Burger during a visit to Impossible Foods in California a year ago.
“I hadn’t had anything quite like it,” he said. “This is really different because it’s hitting on the senses. It smells like meat cooking, which is a really big deal. It looks like meat. It also sounds like meat. It feels like meat.”
Muir said that Impossible Foods approached him to debut the product in New England.
“It’s really in line with what we do at Clover,” Muir said. “We spend every day thinking about what we can do to help people who don’t really love vegetables not just accept them, but dream about them.”
However, Muir didn’t want to serve burgers at Clover.
“We don’t do burgers,” he said. “We’re not known for that, and we’re not set up for it.”
Muir asked if he could serve the product as a meatball instead, and Impossible Foods agreed. Muir’s team uses its own meatball recipe, adding breadcrumbs, fresh parsley, Pecorino cheese, garlic, eggs, salt, and pepper. The meatballs are served in a house-made sauce created daily from scratch.
Muir said the sandwich sold out every day this past weekend, and he’s happy with the feedback he’s received so far.
“It’s very unusual because it’s not just a meatball where someone eats it and says, ‘It’s almost like a meatball,’ ‘It’s almost as good,’ or ‘I can’t believe how close it is,” he said. “The conversation is, ‘Wow, this is the best meatball I’ve ever had.'”
Clover is selling the meatball sandwich for $12.83 at its locations in Harvard Square and within the Harvard University Science Center. Muir said he plans to roll the dish out to other Clover locations in October.