[from April 2007 issue]
“Almost everything we serve is vegan,” says a staffer to a large family grouped at the entranceway and wanting to come in for dinner. But can that explain the cluster of young singles gathered at the bar upstairs? Perhaps the most unlikely hangout, Vegetate on 9th Street just north of the Convention Center was a hopping joint on a recent Saturday night, forcing my friend and me to rethink our cool response to the place. What had we missed? The meatless menu? The minimalist space? The modest décor? Unlike many of its competitors, Vegetate is located in an emerging neighborhood which will, in time, be everything its residents and businesses are striving to achieve. Of course, low rents make Vegetate viable, for certainly it is off the beaten track, even with the Convention Center just two blocks south. But right now, with a cop car parked across the street and putative drug dealers on the corner, it's not a welcoming destination for diners not part of or accustomed to the downtown neighborhoods east of 14th Street. Forget luxury valet parking at the front door. Even so, it can be a good thing to get off the main track to “discover” places that are offering alternatives to the tried and true.
Having flirted with an all-veg lifestyle, I am the first to champion the cause of ma po tofu (a spicy Sichuan tofu-and-chili dish, usually served with rice and often with ground meat, but it is equally good meatless), black beans and rice, and vegetable-cheese quiches. On the other hand, I am certainly -- shudder, gasp -- an omnivore, taking great delight in juicy hamburgers, deftly seasoned pork chops, stir-fried prawns, and Persian lamb kabobs. All things in their own good time, I say. And that's why a dinner at Vegetate seems a reasonable alternative to the steak-and-potatoes restaurant routine. What few all-veg restaurants flourish in the city are Indian or Chinese, with possibly a few exceptions. So that makes this place unique; but, even so, the menu needs some fine-tuning. For one, the kitchen should offer a few more options among both the appetizer and entrée choices (listed here as "small plates" and "large plates") go beyond tofu, gnocchi, and black beans. So, I say, there's plenty more to satisfy the vegetarian palate, even if the kitchen resorts to the full range of soy meats to make the case -- what about "meaty" squares of a vegetarian-soy meat lasagna? And the portions seem diminutive. True, Americans tend to overeat, and many restaurants heap plates with food in an awkward and garish way. And true, the sunchoke and goat cheese gratin is a small plate, but at $10, there was not much bang for the buck. Even the large plate of curried sweet potatoes with black beans appeared more like a pleasant side dish for grilled steak than a main course that a hungry patron depended on for sustenance. Probably offering a cozy basket of warmed baguettes, cornbread, scones, or breadsticks along with the handful of gratis pickled green beans -- which were crunchy and delicious -- might have made the meal more robust, complete and filling. And a generous boost in seasonings might win a round of applause; for example, the curried sweet potato dish would have prospered with a swirl of garam masala or a few more shakes of even store-bought Madras curry powder. Otherwise, we thought the main flavor of this entrée came from the accompanying sautéed greens. What did win hearty endorsement was the side of roasted fingerling potatoes with sautéed spinach and grainy mustard. Punchy with texture and flavor, this was easily the best part of the meal. Well, maybe the dark chocolate torte, with the texture of a very creamy and hauntingly delicious fudge brownie, might take the honors. Now that was pure success. Another gold star: the freshly made ginger ale, which snaps and sparkles like a spring breeze.
Copyright (c) 2007 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Alexandra Greeley. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited, except as provided by 17 U.S.C. §107 “fair use”).
Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor, and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books on Asian and Mexican cuisines published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include restaurant reviews and food articles for national and regional publications, as well as former editor of the Vegetarian Times and former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.
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