March 25, 2010 | Ask Gael

My vegetarian niece will be in town for a week. Help!

 

Meat is king but Salumeria Rosi has many vegetable options. Photo: Steven Richter      
Meat is king but Salumeria Rosi has many vegetable options. Photo: Steven Richter

        "I hope you won’t be too upset,” my niece Dana emailed a few days before she arrived from Montana for a yoga week in New York.  “Just wanted to let you know that I’m am not eating meat/chicken/fish any longer.  Will that put a damper on our dates? I may break down on the fish part…as long as it’s wild caught.  We’ll see.  I’m getting plenty of protein…I promise!”

       Of course I’m upset. I’m a big believer in protein. But she’s a grown woman and a stubborn one at that. If she were 11, I could try an intervention.  I could torture her with spare ribs or a juicy burger and hope for enlightenment. But she’d been a vegetarian before so it wasn’t as if she’d suddenly wandered into an unknown patch of poppies.

       She emails again: “Did you know Clint is a vegetarian?”

       I guess I already knew Clint and I were not compatible.

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       "I used to not eat anything with legs,” she confides, explaining her conversion to us that first Sunday night at Salumeria Rosi. “That allowed for fish.  But now I don’t eat anything with eyes.” It is all because of the neighbor’s cow that ran onto their property to escape the butcher’s truck and fell in their creek. She and Craig ran to pull it out and she saw the terror in its eyes.  That was it. No more animals with eyes.

       Her husband Craig orders a portion of speck. Dana is unperturbed by his move. Steven and I chose our Salumeria favorites to share with him: lasagna, the Calabrese pork sandwich (half spicy, half not), the leek tart and mezzi-rigatoni all’a amatriciana (made with chef-partner Cesare Casella’s signature blend of nine meats). The kitchen sends out the chef’s heirloom beans for Dana. He’s on an island somewhere with his family orchestrating our dinner on his cell phone. She is thrilled.  “I’ve never seen so many different beans. Look at these big ones!”

I’m happy enough with Candle 79’s reinvention of tacos. Phto: Steven Richter      

        Dana shares her caponata, the fusilli alla Mama and the zuppa de grano with us but she is less eager to surrender the risotto di zucca with chunks of butternut squash, scattered pumpkin seeds and amaretti cookie crumbs. (Click here for Cesare’s recipe) Indeed, she brings Craig back next day at lunchtime and stands in line briefly for a risotto encore. 283 Amsterdam Avenue between 73rd and 74th Streets. 212 877 4800

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This is the less than amusing amuse at Candle 79. Photo: Steven Richter

        I’m wondering if the hostess who greets Steven and me at Candle 79 can tell that we are meat-eating infidels. Not that she isn’t warm and welcoming. I like our “front porch” table but there is no pitch in the angle of the banquette and it’s not very comfortable. The couple at the next table hold hands as they share what looks to me like nachos. Actually, it is nachos.

       I’m stunned that this temple of veganism can get so down and dirty. And what’s different about vegan nachos? Tofu sour cream and both cheddar and mozzarella made with a tapioca base, not milk, plus corn chips, refried pinto beans, tomatoes, salsa, guacamole, and chili grilled seiten.  Ah, there’s the rub.  The gluten of wheat.  That uncomfortable feeling Dana gets when she imagines the cow’s eyes is what I get when I see seitan.  But what the hell.  It’s research. It’s one night.  It’s love: I adore her.  And given the chips and all the usual nachos gunk, these aren’t bad at all. The onion rings taste exactly like onion rings because they’re breaded and fried and they are rings of onion. So far so good.

Most of the plates here do look fresh and appealing. Photo: Steven Richter      

        I’m not sure what live avocado is (as opposed to dead avocado) in the “Live Avocado-Jicama Tartare” with trumpet “mushrooms ceviche”  and hijiki “caviar” but all of us are spooning it up with quinoa-flax chips.  The point here is that everything must be organic (although that’s not always clear cut in these days of little regulation) and I love that much is not what it seems.  Horseradish cream is not cream. Cheese is not cheese, but rather macadamia nut paste cheese or spinach cashew ricotta. How much of this stuff do you have to eat before the ravages of age slip into reverse?

       Alas, one taste of the seitan piccata, a ghastly intervention,  is enough for me, and not even sweet potato purée and chocolate mole can save Craig’s citrus herb grilled tempeh.  Seitan does best as smoked sausage in the paella – everyone’s favorite.

       Dana, who actually cooks with seitan and tempeh at home and is fairly bursting with pleasure to see how the pros do it, is clearly disappointed.
154 East 79th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues. 212 537 7179

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Bistro Vendome’s improvised fettucine is the evening’s hit. Phto: Steven Richter

        The new Bistro Vendome is not courting vegetarians. That’s clear from the menu where crispy goat cheese cake with salad and piquillo pepper is Dana’s only option. I apologize to her.  We should have gone to Caravan of Dreams (from her list of vegan pals’ favorites.)

         But I had wanted to check out the latest occupant in the townhouse space on East 58th that was last Nish and March before that, and once the quite thrilling Dodin Bouffant.
 
         “I guess you could have a plate of vegetables sides – they have spinach, brocoli and eggplant bayaldi,” I suggest.

         “Oh don’t worry,” says Dana. “I’ll just ask the kitchen what they can do.  They always come up with something.”  And indeed, I’m srry to report, her vegetable tossed fettuccine is the best dish out of the kitchen that night. 405 East 58th Street between First Avenue and Sutton Place. 212 934 9100.

***

Chef Roberto surprises us with a luscious porcini pizza. Photo: Steven Richter

         What is it about the French bistro mentality that scorns vegetables, unlike the typical trattoria with its eggplant roulade and fried artichokes, its pizza Margarita and all sorts of soups and pastas? A quick dash with Dana and friends over the Williamsburg Bridge to our Brooklyn haunt Fiore is in order.

Fiore’s buttenut squash salad, always good, never looks the same. Phot: Steven Richter

        She’s never had anything like the thin crisp grilled porcini pizza Roberto Aita sends out while we study our place mat menus.  For us, there’s shrimp guazzetto, another chef gift and pasta fagoli for her.  By the time all of us have shared a heap of zucchini and calamari fritti – she sticks to the green of course – we could easily just order the fiercely tart lemon sorbetto and go home. A pause, a few sips of Dolcetto and the arrival of pasta retriggers some appetites.  But Roberto has done cavatelli for her with just broccoli rabe and no sausage.  Of course she’s willing to taste Steven’s bucatini amatriciana too. Too bad Big Fork Montana is so far from Brooklyn. 284 Grand Street between Havemeyer and Roebling Streets. 718-782-8222

***

Dana eats the zuccihini around the calamari on this greasy pile. Photo: Steven Richter

        During the day she takes yoga classes and Craig meets her for lunch. Inevitably all vegetarian roads lead to the Jivamuktea Café on the second floor of Jivamuktea Yoga Center with a menu designed by Matthew Kinney, once a star on the gourmand circuit, now committed to veganism and raw food. “Their seitan wraps and salads are awesome.” Dana tells me. “Huge, generous portions. Dinner for $25.” 841 Broadway between 13th and 14th Strest on the 2nd floor. 212 353 0214

        There are long lines at Curly’s Lunch, she reports, but it’s worth the wait for the Santa Barbarella sandwich on eight grain bread, with pumpkin seed, a pesto schmear, avocado, tofu bacon, jack cheese, cucumber, onion, tomato, lettuce and sprouts,  And, she adds: “I love the sweet potato fries. More vegetarian junk food.”  328 East 14th Street 212 598 9998.

***

Devi is the perfect place to take a sophisticated vegetarian. Photo: Richter

        I decide that dinner at Devi  -- one of my dozen favorite New York restaurants --will make up for any slights and omissions of the loving aunt. Indian restaurants expect to feed vegetarians. With its blush silk curtains, carved marble stair, imported carvings and charming colored glass lanterns, the duplex space is always a surprise on a rather dreary stretch of 18thStreet.  My friend Suvir Saran is away but as always, his chef-partner Hemant Mathur is in the kitchen. The price of a chef’s tasting here has jumped to $85 since our last visit but it’s Restaurant Week so all of us order the $35 dinner with a side of the spicy okra crisps we can never get enough of and two breads – a garlic naan and spinach-goat cheese paratha.

Devi’s mushrooms and the marvelous fiery cauliflour. Photo: Steven Richter

        Dana and I share vegetarian options – grilled and marinated mushrooms and the must-have Manchurian cauliflower to start, then stuffed baby eggplant with fresh coconut, spicy chickpeas to pick up with fried bread puffs and a gift from the kitchen, cheese and potato dumpling with lemon rasam soup and sweet and sour butternut squash. I notice Dana is not eating the potatoes.  “Is that because they have eyes?” I ask.

        She laughs. “ No, I just don’t love potatoes.”
 
         Now the table is covered with desserts by pastry cook Surbhi Sahni that defy the usual Indian desert clichés, more than we’re entitled to because it’s me – Indian bread pudding with caramelized nuts, mango panna cotta, pistachio kulfi, black forest cake with macerated cherries and my favorite, Devi Bombay Falooda – with honey-soaked basil seeds, falooda noodles, strawberry and mango sorbets, coconut lemongrass milk and a coconut tuile. 8 East 18th Street between Broadway and 5th Avenue. 212 691 1300.

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