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Un-Granola

Guide for sophisticated vegetarian dining

Monthly Archives: January 2012

I often get asked where to go for “real” Indian food. And while I can answer that question (the authentic joints are invariably in the burbs, where my people live their American dream), these are not my favorite Indian restaurants. I’d gladly give up some quantum of authenticity for a decent wine list, soft lighting, and an urban location. (Bonus points for food served on real plates instead of styrofoam.)

So Indika is right up my ally. Upscale food rooted in Indian culinary traditions but going in new directions and using high-quality local ingredients. (They start you off with a semolina cake topped with yogurt and pomegranate. Nice.)

Don’t be put off by the somewhat grim cement exterior — the inside is pleasant, with saffron walls and big windows.

Most of what is considered “Indian” food in the US is really from the Punjab region. (In the UK, the food of all India is reduced to the phrase “a curry,” though this is changing.) Indika has only a few dishes that venture beyond the Punjab in their inspiration. There are a long list of meat dishes (goat brain, venison chops), and some inventive veggie options: kale and blueberry salad with cheese, black garbanzo and pumpkin soup, stuffed bitter melon, and roasted portabella.

I ordered the tasting platter – which came with lentils and raita (yogurt sauce) in addition to a wonderful assortment of dishes.

Indika seasons each dish so that it stands out. This is the opposite of your average Indian restaurant, where many dishes taste similar, and cream is the not so secret ingredient. Kari leaf (an actual leaf that is the basis for curry but often used on its own) perked up green beans. The pickled eggplant was garlicky. My favorite dish was the fried eggplant, which was coated with amchur (dried mango powder) that made it deliciously sour. The paneer makhani (cheese in a tomato and cream sauce) was rich and decadent, as it’s meant to be. The least interesting dish was the potato cake, which was smothered in yogurt and tamarind sauces. Indika’s naan = puffy and chewy goodness.

Judging by the warm and buttery cardamom cookies they sent with my bill, their dessert options are worth trying:

I hope Indian restaurants in the US evolve, both to focus on regional cuisines and to go beyond tradition, as Indika does so well.

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Why do some restaurants make you feel good while others don’t? It isn’t money — expensive restaurants can feel stiff and awkward, while some taco places feel perfect. There’s an X factor that makes some places work.

Whatever it is, Frasca has it. Eating pasta at the Frasca bar while watching the snow fall — I could not have been happier. Kind of weird that I like it so much, because Frasca doesn’t have many vegetarian options.

The space itself is elegant and beautifully lit. I love sitting at the bar, since I’m generally only there for a quick bite on a work night.

They serve wine by the half glass (tajuk is the term in Friuli, the Italian region Frasca draws inspiration from), so you can drink just a little or sample different wines. The cocktails look terrific, too.

On my last visit, I had the vellutata, a cauliflower soup with montasio cheese and pickled beet.

The natural creaminess of the cauliflower, and (let’s be honest) the butter and cream made it rich and delicious. I loved the tartness of the pickled beet at the bottom of the bowl.

Next up: fresh made stradette, which are strips of cornmeal pasta. Frasca served them with  leeks and parmigiana.

The cornmeal in the pasta gave it a chewy texture, and the pureed leeks with cheese were rich and delicious. Pasta has to be really great to be served naked like this, not covered in a ton of sauce or butter.

Frasca doesn’t have vegetarian main courses, but they did have a couple of pasta and risotto options when I ate there. I wish they had more vegetarian options, but it’s hard to complain when every single plate I’ve had there is great. And when they have Mose Tolliver paintings on the restroom doors:

 

 

 

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Leaf is a great little vegetarian restaurant. It has raw food, pasta dishes made with cheese and eggs, and lots of meatless dishes in between those two points.

I’ve eaten here many times. There are some dishes that I love, like the raw wrap with rainbow chard and cashew cheese. Their three-course prix fixe ($24) is a great deal. I love that they’ll let you pick a starter, a salad, and an entree instead of dessert. (They’d probably let you order three desserts too — Leaf is  run by really nice people.)

On my last trip, I started with the daily soup, which was described as a gumbo with black eyed peas and okra.

It was good and nicely flavored, though it could have been thicker (it was more soup than gumbo).

Faced with too many choices for my entree, I gave up and ordered what my waitress recommended: peanut noodles with tofu and an egg on top. I generally love an egg on top. But this dish, with the peanut sauce and the egg, was just too rich. It was delicious, and I probably would have enjoyed it more on a day when I was hungrier or craving fatty goodness.

But it’s nice (as a vegetarian) to have choices, even if I make the wrong one every once in a while. Can’t wait to try Leaf again.

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What do you do when you’re second? In the case of Second Bar + Kitchen, first is Congress, an expensive, sophisticated restaurant that serves fixed course meals with wine pairings. Second (both restaurants are in the Austonian) has set up a more casual (there’s a TV over the bar) and way less expensive operation.

Second’s menu lists snacks, small plates, soups and salads, large plates, and sides. There are a couple of ways to eat here – you can have a traditional appetizer/entree meal, or you can share plates.

It’d be fun to order small plates only and sample the cocktails (love the Gin and Jam). The barkeep is Billy Hankey, formerly of the now-closed Good Knight, and the cocktails are creative and delicious. We sat on the busy and comfortable patio, watched the world go by, and had a cocktail with mole and eggwhite.

The interior space has interesting light fixtures and cozy seating, but it’s really loud.

To go with the cocktail, we ordered the blistered shishito peppers:

They are crunchy, a little spicy, and totally addictive. The miso aioli takes the heat off.

The veggie options are limited at Second. There are some fine salads, then it’s pasta and pizza.

After a simple salad, I had the garlic and chive gnocchi from the small plate menu. The gnocchi were light and silky but swimming in butter.  The black olives and spinach make this an interesting dish, but I wish they’d lighten it up. (The pappardelle with mushrooms, which I had on my last visit, was better.)

We didn’t get dessert, but they have “bites” for $2-3 bucks in addition to full-sized desserts. Nice when just you want a little something sweet.

Congress has a vegetarian tasting menu. Maybe Second will add more vegetarian options to keep up with Congress (and the times).

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Some countries just don’t get vegetarians. Once, when I was in Mexico, I was served a dish with bacon — my very nice waiter thought it was vegetarian because it had vegetables. (I can understand his logic.) Germany is one of these countries. I will visit one day. I will take a lot of energy bars.

So it’s great that Fabi + Rosi, a European kitchen with a German chef, had two vegetarian entrees on the night I visited. Neither of them had protein, but at least vegetarians won’t have to eat sides here.

I love old bungalows, and the crisp black and white interior of this one is calm and lovely. There are funny bits — check out this deer, checked out for the holidays:

But we’re here for the food, right? And it is good. We had two vegetarian appetizers, curried cauliflower soup (one of the night’s specials) and an arugula salad with overnight tomatoes.

The soup was creamy and flavored just right, the curry spices weren’t too heavy. The overnight tomatoes, which are roasted to bring out their sugar, really make the salad.

About the service: everyone tries really hard. When my friend was brought a salad instead of the escargot she ordered, our server cheerfully fixed the mistake. And maybe the front desk person who told us it would take more than an hour to get a table was just trying to manage our expectations. We were seated in 20 minutes, so I’m glad we didn’t leave.

My main course was mushroom strudel with whipped cauliflower and carrot cardamom purée.

Mushroom strudel is a great winter dish, and the carrot cardamom puree added a creative touch to F+R’s buttery version. The cardamom tempered the sweetness of the carrots but wasn’t overwhelming. I’m not a fan of big piles of mashed potatoes, but maybe some people just need more on their plate than I do.

They had three dessert options, and we ordered two of the three. The chocolate mousse did all that a mousse can do. It was nice. But the chevre tart with graham cracker crust was divine. The baked chevre was creamy and tart, leaving the carmelized sugar lid and candied lemons to make the dish sweet. This is clearly their signature dessert.

Looking forward to energy bars AND chevre tart when I make it to Germany…

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