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Guide for sophisticated vegetarian dining

Monthly Archives: October 2011

Just like Rivera,  Samar by Dallas superchef Stephen Pyles offers food from different regions of the world. In this case, the sources of inspiration are Spain, the Eastern Mediterranean, and India. All these cultures believe in food that is meant to be sampled, passed and shared. Tapas/mezze/chaat.

There are no vegetarian large plates, which seems like a major oversight for a restaurant located in Dallas’ sophisticated museum district. But there are plenty of veggie small plates to choose from. (The more formal Stephen Pyles restaurant just down the street has not one vegetarian option. Not one.)

At Samar, my choices ranged from Spanish-inspired bread with cheese and tomato, gazpacho, and blistered green chilis. The Mediterranean section featured three spreads (hommus, moutabal, and labne), the salad fatoush, and haloumi stuffed squash blossoms. From India: lots of hyphenated naans (rosemary-garlic, sundried tomato-basil, spinach- goat cheese) and chutneys, along with vegetable samosas and chickpea masala with potato-wrapped asparagus.

I’d said goodbye to gazpacho until next summer, so that was an easy call.  It came out in a white bowl with just the garnishes:  

And then the waiter poured the soup in from a clay pitcher:

Love the drama. It was terrific, the freshness of the heirloom tomatoes brought out by the sherry vinaigrette.

I never try to resist samosas. These were great, though they probably work better as a shared dish: buttery pastry with spinach, paneer, and red peppers inside. I’ve have preferred it without the paneer, which made it very rich.

The accompanying tamarind chipotle chutney is the kind of dish that gives fusion a good name. Tart and sweet, with a hint of fire. The waiter explained that it was made from fresh tamarind and strained several times to arrive at a silken consistency.

Samar’s space is streamlined, with judicious placement of Moroccan lamps, hookahs, and framed Indian textiles. Not elaborate by Big Hair Big D standards. I sat at the bar and had a view of the open kitchen. There are outdoor and indoor spaces, including two beautifully curtained nooks for larger groups:

I would have preferred a veggie large plate. But the small plate options I tried were satisfying. The waiter said their offerings change with the seasons — worth checking out what they do with the next season’s bounty.

Check out DallasVegan’s review of Samar.


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The website for Justine’s  has grainy footage of girls cavorting in a bathtub. It’s fun, sexy, and cool — exactly like the brasserie itself.  Recreating the look and feel of some faraway place could have gone terribly wrong.  (Think of Chuy’s trying to export that Barton Springs Road vibe as they expand into Alabama, Tennessee and beyond.)
Justine’s gets it right. The blackboards with wine and cocktail specials, dark red walls, marble-topped tables, stamped tin ceiling tiles: it’s charming instead of contrived. I even liked the faux wine-stained menu.
Lovely though the interior is, the outside tables are better.
It can be ridiculously difficult to get a table at this place, outside or in. So do what one clever friend of mine did: book a table for 10 (they do take reservations for large groups) and see who’s free to join you.
Francophiles rave about the taste and authenticity of the food. Great charcuterie, French Onion soup, steak frites. French food isn’t very veggie-friendly, so Justine’s might not be at the top of a vegetarian’s list. If you do come here for the ambiance or to please your meat-loving friends, Justine’s offers salads, grilled vegetables and a cheese plate as veggie appetizers, and ratatouille as a main. Having recently made my way through ratatouille at Olivia and ratatouille at Salt, I opted for grilled asparagus to start and the summer salad (hold the fish) as my main.
The summer salad was perfect. Hard boiled eggs, sweet tomatoes, basil, and crunchy homemade croutons in a tangy lemon sauce.
Not the heartiest meal I’ve ever had, but a lovely plate of food in one of the coolest joints in town.

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I really want to love Salt. First, because it’s called Salt, a substance I sprinkle liberally on everything short of coffee. And second because the restaurant does all the right things: buy from local farmers, use organic produce, tell you all about it on the menu. What’s not to love?

The menu is divided into Appetizers, Salads, Small Plates, and Entrees. There are veggie options in all sections. I had the Local Organic Vegetable Tasting, an entree.

I have to reproduce the description in its entirety. Even if I cooked with everything in my fridge after grocery shopping, it wouldn’t look like this:

Polenta with sweet corn and cavolo nero, ratatouille, quinoa fritters, green bean and creme fraiche salad, eggplant roulade with ricotta, spicy tomato passata and buffalo mozzarella.

Lots going on.  The polenta was addictive, the slight bitterness of the cavolo nero (Tuscan kale) contrasting with the creamy, buttery goodness of the polenta. The green bean and crème fraiche salad was a nice riff on one of those Midwestern salads with mayonnaise as the dressing – creative use of crème fraiche. The ratatouille was spicy but not overwhelming.

Nothing was bad. But did it all go together? Does anyone really need that much food? Wouldn’t it be more elegant to offer two quinoa cakes, some green beans with crème fraiche, and a small mound of polenta? Isn’t pairing crunchy with soft, salty with creamy what chefs do?

Salt deserves credit for trying so hard. Judging by the crowds on a Wednesday night, they’re doing just fine. But I wish Salt would look in the mirror and take just one accessory off before leaving home.

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The Kitchen always has at least one vegetarian entrée. Last time I went, it was a quinoa dish with broccoli and sundried tomatoes. I’ve been trying to recreate that dish at home. I’m sure my family wishes I’d stop. (“Dinner tonight isn’t anything special, but the dish it’s based on was terrific!”)

On this visit, the vegetarian option was Stuffed Colorado Pepper. It was a beautiful plate of food. The yellow pepper, stuffed with mushrooms and wheatberries, was sitting on tomato and chickpea purees. Great mix of flavors, from the acidity of the tomato to the earthiness of mushrooms. The only off note was the mint, which seemed harsh and medicinal to me.

I’m grateful that the Stuffed Colorado Pepper, like the quinoa dish I had on my last visit,  had vegetarian protein. The Kitchen seems to get that vegetarians need more than salads and pastas.

Of course, The Kitchen has vegetarian salads and pastas, if that’s what you want. The sides of olives, cheese, and hummus offer another option for a light meal.

I ate at the bar, and it could not have been a nicer experience. The bartenders, generous with the pours, are happy to chat or leave you alone. They tell you when a dish is vegan (as the Colorado pepper dish was) and suggest wines if you want guidance. And in a town full of stylish restaurants, Kitchen’s vibe is maybe my favorite. Modern rustic, with exposed brick, a blackboard listing local farms they source from, and a handsome wooden bar.

On Mondays they have a Community Night dinner that is served family style in the loud but lovely upstairs space.

And I only peeked into the new Kitchen [Next Door],  the Kitchen’s  informal and inexpensive “community pub.” Looks like it’s worth a try — same farm-to-table philosophy but all dishes are under $9.

I’ve been to Olivia a handful of times. At the bottom of a menu with lamb tongue and sweetbreads is the offer of  “vegetarian/vegan seasonal selections,” a mystery plate. So while your carnivorous friends ponder their multiple choices, you keep your fingers crossed that the mystery works out. One time it was a quinoa dish with red pepper dish, flavorful and creative and colorful, lay under the shroud of mystery. Another time it was pasta, delicious but still just pasta, which felt like an afterthought for vegetarians. I think they’re now offering vegetarians a choice of starch (quinoa, gnocchi, barley) with vegetables.

For Austin Restaurant Week, Olivia offered vegetarians crudite as a starter, ratatouille as a main, and two desserts. (Given the recent trend towards bacon in everything, I feel compelled to point out that the desserts were veg-friendly.) My friend ordered a cheese plate to share and gnocchi with a chef’s selection of vegetables, both from the regular menu. The cheerful servers accommodated her request to avoid mushrooms and not hold back on the green beans.

My crudite starter was a deconstructed salad with lettuce, green beans, carrots — and a thick buttermilk dressing that was more like a dip. The simple presentation showcased the crisp, fresh from the restaurant garden, veggies. My friend’s cheese plate had chevre wrapped in the herb hoja santa, local muenster, Point Reyes blue, and a fruit chutney. Terrific.

We sat outside to enjoy the cooling weather, but the interior is gorgeous. It’s a slice of LA on South Lamar.

The ratatouille was brought to life by the polenta. Instead of the customary pile of mush, this polenta was in the form of crispy sticks. I’m going to need polenta in stick form from now on.

My friend’s gnocchi was good, though she found it a tad dry. Lots of vegetables on both plates.

We ordered both desserts:  marinated chevre that was like our cheese plate all over again, and a chocolate malt pie with cognac, grape, chocolate chip cookie, and goat’s milk ice cream. It was sweet, all of it – would probably have been better with a dusting of sea salt. The ice cream on its own would have been enough for me.

No doubt Olivia offers some of the most sophisticated cooking in town. But you have to be a carnivore to keep yourself entertained with repeat visits. For vegetarians, it’s starch of your choice + veggies.

I always end up calling Backspace “Backside,” which I think we can all agree is a dreadful name for a restaurant. It is in fact located roughly behind Parkside, Shawn Cirkiel’s brave upscale dining spot on 6th St. While Parkside is not particularly kind to vegetarians, this spot in the back is. I could happily eat the apps alone.

Their menu for Austin Restuarant Week is a great deal. Two starters, a pizza, two desserts, and a bottle of wine for $50. They were very nice about letting us get three starters in place of the second dessert. (I’m not sure I could have picked just two out of the four excellent veggie starter options.) We got the fresh tomato salad (with fresh mozzarella), farm greens salad, and oven roasted carrots.

All were delicious, thought the carrots were the standout dish. They looked like they’d been picked out of a garden just minutes before — this dish could change the minds of people who think they don’t like vegetables.

Our margherita pizza, fresh from the huge oven that dominates the restaurant, was devoured before I could take a photo. Crisp thin crust, tangy sauce, delicious cheese. Surely a candidate for best pizza in town.

Next came the hazelnut chocolate budino. It was served in a mason jar, which was perfect, since the sticky sweet crunchy dessert reminded me of something I’d spoon out of a jar from the fridge late at night. The budino has a comforting, simple look and a memorable taste.

Restaurant Week menu aside, the regular Backspace menu has plenty of vegetarian options: cauliflower, summer squash, ricotta. No veggie protein, but plenty of delicious vegetable goodness.

The small space is rustic and elegant but definitely cozy. They take reservations, thank goodness.

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Went to Trace at the W Hotel to check out their Austin Restaurant Week lunch menu. The epic heat wave is behind us, so we sat outside. The setting is crisply modern: dark tables, white chairs, mirrored surfaces, cool light fixtures. Exactly what you’d expect from the W.

Kudos to Trace for having vegetarian dishes with protein in them as part of their special restaurant week menu. I had the excellent Black Eyed and Creamer Pea Cakes for a starter. A generous portion of fresh peas, wonderfully spiced, with corn and red pepper relish. My friend had the summer garden salad, the other vegetarian starter option.

My veggie “pakora” burger was good, though maybe a vegetarian who misses hamburgers might enjoy it more than I did, since they had what I imagine to be a meaty texture. (P.Terry’s veggie burgers are better.) The fries were crisp and delicious, speckled with sea salt and parsley.

All this, and the swank of the W, for just $15. Go now, grab a table outside, and enjoy the coincidence of Austin Restaurant Week and cool weather.


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