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Un-Granola

Guide for sophisticated vegetarian dining

Tag Archives: cardamom

I once stayed at a lovely old hotel in Bruges, Belgium where they required all guests to eat one meal at their restaurant. My obligatory meal involved multiple courses of wild rice. In a salad, in a soup, in a dish cooked with vegetables. I don’t remember dessert, it may have involved wild rice too. The chef clearly just didn’t know what to do for a vegetarian, Belgian cuisine being as meat-focused as it is.

Congress is nothing like that. They don’t miss a beat in serving vegetarians.

This elegant spot in the Austonian building offers 3-course ($75) and 7-course ($125) tasting menus. On a prior visit, they had printed vegetarian tasting menus. On this visit, our waiter just pointed out the vegetarian dishes and the ones that could be modified to be made veg-friendly. She also said the chef would make special dishes if guests didn’t like the ones on offer.

Our amuse bouche was a potato custard with parmesan foam. I asked if it was vegetarian, and she said: Everything I bring you tonight will be vegetarian. Now folks, that’s what you call service.

The rich custard and light, salty foam vanished quickly:

First up on my 3-course menu: a burrata, peach, and tomato salad.

Burrata (fresh mozzarella with cream inside) is always a treat. The tomatoes and peaches in this dish made for an unusual combination of tart and sweet. Sage, in place of the expected basil, cut through the rich dairy goodness.

I could probably make that dish, it was more about the combination of ingredients than technique. I would not, however, attempt to make what came next:

I’d asked for a dish with vegetarian protein but no pasta. They served me fresh fava beans and black quinoa with micro-greens, corn and smoked buttermilk. The acidity of the buttermilk complemented the chewiness of the beans and quinoa. The smoky note added umami, that quality of mouth-fullness.

I have no idea how to smoke buttermilk, and never has quinoa tasted so good.

My third course was carrot ravioli:

The cardamom, shiso (a variety of mint that is frequently used in Japanese cuisine), and garlic broth had a deep, complex flavor that tempered the sweetness of the carrot filling in the ravioli. Cardamom is great with sweet vegetables such as carrots and pumpkins.

For dessert, we split a lime-basil sorbet. Sounds simple, right?

It was anything but. Dehydrated, candied grains added crunch to the tart yogurt mousse. There was sweet mango and Asian pear, offset by a puree of intensely sour calamansi lemons. Overall, our dessert was sweet and sour, creamy and crunchy – totally delicious.

Calamansi lemons, our server told us, are a cross between mandarin oranges and kumquats traditionally grown in the Philippines. They might be the new “it” ingredient, the way pomegranates were a couple of years ago. (See this article from the Kitchn: http://www.thekitchn.com/strong-and-sour-calamansi-lemo-154832)

Congress is not cheap. But you would pay a lot more for this level of cooking in NYC or LA. The manager came by and told us that, in addition to happily accommodating vegetarians, they can serve vegans with a couple of days’ notice. So – Austin now has a restaurant that can offer a vegan tasting menu.

Congress is worth your saved pennies.

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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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