When I think vegetarian, I think my friend Lisa. Our debates about vegetarianism have gone on for the entirety of our seven year friendship. You can meet her on Saturday if you come to our 2nd year anniversary party and she’ll espouse the benefits of a meat-free existence as I mock her over her shoulder. Yes, Lisa and I have a friendly feud about meat-eating vs. not meat-eating but there was once a time I tried to meet her halfway. I tried to take her to Angelica Kitchen, a gourmet vegetarian restaurant in the East Village.
After all our bickering, you’d think she’d appreciate the gesture. But when we walked in she sniffed the air and immediately requested that we leave. “It smells too much like food in here,” she said. “I’ll smell like food for the rest of the night.”
Smilla has her sense of snow, and Lisa has her sense of smell. She doesn’t like places that make her smell like food. So we left and didn’t look back. I’d forgotten that it existed until I had plans with another vegetarian friend last night: my friend Jason. He lives in the East Village so I suggested Angelica Kitchen. “I love Angelica Kitchen!” he said. We were on.
Angelica Kitchen does indeed smell like food, but to my mind it’s a comforting, welcoming smell. Like a grandmother’s kitchen with pots of vegetables stewing. They seated us in a back corner near a man eating alone. I tried to hang my wet coat on a hook (it was raining) but that led to the coat resting on my head. So I put it on the back of my chair.
Jason and I studied our menus. I seriously considered choosing a picnic plate where you get to choose three, four, or five items. Jason advised against it.
“This place is known for the way they transform vegetables,” he said. “You should get one of their entree dishes.”
The man eating alone turned around.
“Can I make a suggestion?” he said.
“Sure,” I said.
“I come here all the time and I know the owners. Whenever they want to send over something special they send their pickles and they send their walnut-lentil pate.”
“Oh, ok,” said I. “Those sound good.”
“I don’t like pickles,” said Jason.
“I also recommend the cranberte to drink,” concluded the man.
“Thank you very much,” I replied.
When the waiter came, I ordered a cranberte—cranberry juice, apple cider and tea—a walnut-lentil pate for Jason and I to share and the vegetarian chili.
Here’s the walnut-lentil pate:
This reminded me of my grandmother’s favorite vegetarian chopped liver from Whole Foods, except smoother. Sometimes you praise vegetarian food for coming close to the real thing, other times you praise it for being good on its own. Here, I’m somewhere caught in the middle. It was pretty good on its own but I’d still prefer real chopped liver. Nothing like that meaty, savory, salty tangyness that chopped liver–“an organ meat!” my grandmother would warn–can provide. Yet this is healthier. You be the judge.
My chili, though, does win awards for the enthusiastic way the chefs attempt to rev up the gourmet factor.
Officially, this is: “Three bean chili” described as “piquant chili made with homemade seitan, kidney and pinto beans and lentils; slowly simmered with sun-dried tomatoes and a blend of chilis; topped with lime-jalapeno tofu sour cream. Served with fluffy Southern style cornbread and cucumber-red onion salsa.”
Phew. That’s the description on menupages.com. My salsa that night was actually a butternut squash salsa which was even better. All these gourmet touches–the lime jalapeno tofu sour cream, the butternut squash salsa–made this a dish worth seeking out. It’s not better than real chili–I still missed the meat–but it’s a great alternative chili, one I’d happily have again. And the giant piece of cornbread is brilliant: you have plenty an opportunity to mop up sauce, beans, and stray flecks of butternut squash.
All in all, this vegetarian meal left me satisfied without making me feel like buying sandals or joining a cult. I walked away refreshed, enlivened and gassy as I’ve ever been. Ah, the perils of vegetarian feasting.