I like vegetarian food. Or some of it. But every now and then when I eat at a highly praised vegetarian restaurant I can't tell if I have to be a vegetarian to fully appreciate it. "Vegetarians love this place, thus I CAN TOO! I...can...I...want a pork chop."
My favorite places to get vegetarian food are be Asian (mainly Chinese and Indian), natural food stores with vegetarian-friendly delis, (Life Thyme and Earth Matters being my two favorites), Tiny's Giant Sandwich Shop, or my kitchen when Tristan is cooking (I'd almost always rather eat whatever random stew of spicy deliciousness he cobbles together than go out to eat vegan food). Exclusively vegetarian or vegan restaurants that fall outside these categories usually leave me wanting more. For the high(er than I'm used to) prices these places tend to charge I expect to eat something pretty awesome, but instead I usually feel underwhelmed, like something is missing (and that "something" isn't animal-derived).
In the past two months I've eaten at Sacred Chow, Candle Cafe, and Counter, three vegetarian restaurants I had known about for years but hadn't tried until I went out with vegetarian friends. Here's a quick overview of my thoughts about these restaurants and a few notes about those thoughts:
- I only ate at each restaurant once, which doesn't necessarily give a full impression of their dishes
- ...My impression being that they're not bad, but not as good as I would've expected from the reviews I read
- For the prices they charged, I expected something better
- I know it costs a lot to run a restaurant, and their ingredients may be better than most others, but the food should still taste...better
- Since I tend to eat cheaply so I can pay my bills without going in debt, pricey food has to taste REALLY FREAKIN' AWESOME for me to think it's worth it (and I will happily pay for REALLY FREAKIN' AWESOME food). Richer people may have different standards
- I know that there's plenty of so-so, overpriced food in the "omnivore-friendly restaurants" category
- My idea of what tastes good may not be the same as what vegetarians think tastes good
- Vegetarians, please don't hate meee
My next entry will be about vegetarian/vegan eateries that I like, if that helps at all.
Sacred Chow: Small Plates of Meh
While waiting outside Sacred Chow for Tristan—neither of us had ever eaten there, so I suggested we try it—a guy came out the restaurant and walked...towards me.
"Are you roboppy?"
Colin, an ardent bicyclist, vegan, and fan of TGWAE (WOO, VEGANS LIKE ME?!), recognized me and my hulking camera. Ahh, that damn thing always gives me away. But I was lucky he came out to save me from ordering anything that sucked.
"I head good things about this place, but my meal wasn't that great," he explained. While looking at a menu he pointed at the dishes that sounded better than they tasted. "You have to try Candle Cafe; it's my favorite restaurant." We did end up going there later; you'll see, a bit further down the page. Or you could just scroll down if you're impatient.
Tristan and I shared four dishes, starting with three small places for $15 (each one is $5.25 or $5.50 on its own).
As we are both soba lovers, we had to get the cold sliced ginger soba noodles coated in spicy peanut sauce, topped with crushed peanuts Overall, it tasted okay, nothing memorable. The portion was smaller than I would've expected, even if it was called a "small plate." This was my favorite dish, but that may because I like all things soba.
Curried steamed broccoli was also fine. I like steamed broccoli no matter what, unless it's overcooked, which these weren't. I don't recall much curry flavor.
Roasted Indonesian tempeh consisted of eight small tempeh strips roasted to a semi-crisp and a salad drizzled in some kind of dressing, apparently not very memorable. I mostly recall liking the crisp and chewy texture of the tempeh, which didn't have much flavor aside from a faint nuttiness. Another "this was okay, but I don't really remember it, oops" kind of dish.
The root vegetables latkes with Indonesian date butter were my least favorite of the four dishes. I wasn't a fan of the texture—kind of tough, like it was undercooked—and even though I piled on the date butter, it didn't add much flavor. While they may have wanted to use root vegetables to be more creative/nutritious, I think it would've been better if they had just used potatoes. Which would then be...hash browns.
Tristan and I both felt like Sacred Chow was overpriced for being just okay—not a place we'd feel inclined to revisit. At least, we didn't think those four dishes were worth $20.25. Perhaps they were using very good ingredients, but that doesn't mean much if they're turned into underwhelming dishes. If you want a variety of awesome vegetarian (and maybe some vegan) dishes, I'd recommend going to Westville where a plate of four sides is only $13 and is way tastier than Sacred Chow.
I hate saying bad stuff about a restaurant. I heard the desserts are good. Eh?
Candle Cafe: Good, But Somewhat Pricey
Candle Cafe is my favorite of the three restaurants in this post. That doesn't mean I love it (it's on the pricey side), but if I wanted to bring a vegan or vegetarian friend out for a meal a step nicer than casual, this would be a candidate.
Colin and I shared a limonade, a smoothie of lemon, lime, agave nectar, and ice. It was super sour, although that's better than being super sweet. Dilute it with some water and you've got more smoothie with less mouth puckering.
- Colin: "This salad sort of let me down in the taste department. also, there were flecks of pork in it. what the?? JK! =D"
Yup, it's another soba dish, this time a soba noodle salad with ginger grilled tofu, shiitake mushrooms, edamame, julienne carrots, radish, and mesclun with wasabi dressing. It was tasty enough. Just not $15 tasty. My favorite vegan soba salad-type dish is still from Earth Matters. (Annnd just so you know, there are pricey salads that taste like heaven. The salad I ate at Diner probably cost around $15, if not more, but it was amazingly delicious. "Cue the angel choir" type thing. I'm pretty sure it was vegan friendly, unless the dressing had pork fat in it.)
Tuscan lasagna atop sautéed greens was layered with grilled zucchini, peppers, onions, tofu basil ricotta, soy cheese, and seitan ragout and topped with tomato truffle sauce. Tofu basil "ricotta" may not taste exactly like ricotta, but...I liked it. Actually I think I liked this lasagna better than most meat lasagnas. Except for the $16 price tag.
Colin was especially fond of the cajun seitan burger, pan-seared seitan, steamed greens, caramelized onions, and avocado on toasted focaccia with ancho chili aioli and coleslaw. I think the pan-seared seitan is about as close as you can get to a breaded pork cutlet. But without the umami flavor.
Which is why you need this: ancho chili aioli. Creamy mayonnaise-like goo! Tastes garlicky and somewhat..chili-y. Slather it on.
And there's Colin behind the scary baby face-decorated package. (It was a gift for me. The thing inside the package, that is—not a picture of a baby face. ;) YAY COLIN!)
The food tasted fine, but for the price (even if organic) I would've a little bit expected more. Any sandwich that costs $14 better be addictively good and the only place I can recommend for that is Blue Ribbon Bakery. Unfortunately, they probably have one vegan sandwich at the most, with more choices for vegetarians.
Counter: If You Want a Sundae on a Plate
Counter specializes in serving organic wine and cocktails and "vegetarian haute cuisine." Charles invited me to eat there with his friends Diana and Alison, primarily dessert. But the rest of us were hungrier than that, so we also ate some savory dishes.
Diana and I shared the Italian farmhouse panini of walnut-lentil paté, plum tomato, and rosemary aioli on ciabatta bread. The sandwich was good—the bread was crusty and slightly chewy and the filling was...creamy. I couldn't tell you, "Mm, bursting with walnut and lentil goodness," but it had some kind of flavor of non-blandless, whatever the combination of walnut and lentils tastes like. My main objection is that the crustiness of the bread was unbalanced with the creamy paté, which couldn't help but squish out from the force of biting through the bread. Whether it was worth $14 depends on how desperately you want a tasty vegetarian sandwich.
Alison ordered the East Side Burger made of wild mushroom paté, housemade seitan, and fresh herbs, served with "pommes frites." I didn't try the burger; Alison gave the impression that it was pretty good. And although I know it's a legitimate name for a type of french fry, it would be more descriptive to call them potato wedges than pommes frites. Admittedly, it doesn't sound as classy.
We all shared a selection of three mezze ($15), from front to back: zaalok (roasted pepper & eggplant caviar); corn beignets with remoulade sauce; panisse with aioli (chickpea fries). Each one was fine, but not awesome, like a flavor was missing. Eggplant spread wasn't eggplant-y enough? Corn fritters weren't very corny? Chickpea fries taste mostly like...starch? Maybe I'm being too critical.
The gooey hot fudge sundae with wild berries and chocolate crème anglaise sounded better than it actually was. And we had two orders of the stuff to go through because Diana and I both wanted one. The first order that came out had toppled over; otherwise, it looks like this. Either way, it taste the same, which is "alright." Despite the name, the fudge was not very gooey. Also, I think it makes more sense to put a sundae in a tall cup instead of a shallow container made of phyllo dough (HUUUH?) because...um...it's hard to spoon up all the goodness when its ON A FLAT PLATE. There's a reason that there are special glasses for sundaes. Amirite? And when it's in a cup all the goo and sauce can collect at the bottom so you can scoop it up with your spoon. On a plate, you can't do nuttin'. Not easily at least. Unless you want to lick the plate. Which I didn't.
The melt-in-your-mouth chocolate tart wasn't bad. As the name says, the dense chocolate and nut-heavy filling was melt-in-your-mouth.
The sauce of the chocolate fondue with Valrhona and Callebaut chocolate, apple chunks, coffee-walnut cake and something else (I don't remember eating marzipan-filled dates like the menu says) hadn't completely melted when it came to our table, so we poked and stared at the semi-liquidy chocolate goo as the little candle slowly did its heating business. I'll refrain from commenting much on the fondue because I'm not a big fan of eating things dipped in melted chocolate (although I do like it on top of ice cream), but I remember thinking that the cake was too dry.
It was disappointing to have underwhelming food at a restaurant that I had heard good things about. Most of you know what I'm like; It's not as though my standards are unattainably high.