June 1, 2009

The waiter was back already.


Had it already been a minute? Should I have asked for two minutes? Maybe five?


Maybe I should have just taken her somewhere else. An Italian restaurant, or a nice Greek place good for a date and good for vegetarians. But no, I picked Harvest Bistro beautiful and elegant but, in the end, still a French restaurant light on vegetarian options.


But we're right next to a farm, I thought, still looking over the menu for something sans meat I might have missed. And the place is called "harvest." You traditionally harvest vegetables, not lamb shanks, right? What's the deal?


After a long deliberation, I ordered a pasta dish, "hold the chicken" and ended up paying full price.


In the coming months, similar situations would play themselves out at restaurants across North Jersey.


At Janice, a Bistro in Ho-Ho-Kus, I'd have to get the unexciting penne a vodka, the lone veggie-friendly dish on the menu.


At Stephen's Chalet in Hawthorne, to get the zesty pasta linguine I wanted, I'd have to strip it of its shrimp, yet still pay the full $15.95.


At more casual spots it was a steady diet of salads and veggie burgers, salads and veggie burgers, salads and veggie burgers welcomed only as they didn't contain pasta.


My first year as a vegetarian (no, I don't eat fish; please stop asking) was shaping up to be a difficult one. Was I going to the wrong places, or were my expectations unreasonable?


After talking to a few chefs, I think it was a little of both.


"We're a French-American bistro. So, no, my menu isn't based on vegetarians," said Denis Whitton, Harvest's executive chef, "but I definitely go out of my way to make everyone happy."


According to Whitton and other North Jersey chefs, nice restaurants aren't off limits to veggie-heads like myself. We just need to know what to look for and what to say.



For starters, I was told, check out a restaurant's menu before you visit. It may be the difference between eating a "fresh seasonal vegetable plate" ($18) at Harvest Bistro or digging into the popular grilled black bean and pepper jack quesadilla ($22) recently added to the menu at Esty Street in Park Ridge by executive chef Adam Weiss.


"That was something I started because I felt that there was a need for a vegetarian entr" said Weiss, who estimated vegetarians make up 5 percent to 10 percent of Esty's customers.


Weiss' spring menu also includes a cheese plate, a mesclun salad and occasional meat-free soups.



You can have similar success grazing at many a Mediterranean spot, as they usually offer a good number of veggie-friendly eats, even if just in the form of an appetizer sampler with dips and salads. I've had luck at Hamsa in Tenafly and Mediterraneo in Ridgewood.


Even at steakhouses like Regina's in Teaneck and the multiple River Palm Terrace locations, you can conceivably (if inexplicably) make a respectable meal of starters, salads and sides like creamed spinach, hash brown potatoes, a Greek salad and asparagus hollandaise.


This approach gives you variety, too, which chefs agree is a win.


"I'd rather do a vegetarian tasting, meaning small plates, [than a full entre," said Kevin Kohler, chef-owner of Cafe Panache in Ramsey, whose meatless menu would include pasta, a salad and any number of different vegetable creations.

"I've found it to be better for the vegetarian to break their dinner up into four or five courses."


He also gives a break on the price. A normal tasting menu will run you $65 or $75; the veggie one is $55.



For chefs to do something like this, though, customers must make their needs known. You can't sit and sulk (as I had) about a restaurant not having any vegetarian option. You need to speak up.


At 9 North in Wayne, executive chef Josh Bernstein felt so strongly about this that he put it on the bottom of the restaurant's $30 tasting menu: "Please talk to your server about any dietary needs. We will gladly do our best to accommodate."


"We do try to include some vegetarian options when we make the new menus," said Bernstein, whose newest menu includes a veggie farfalle, an adaptable risotto and a load of meat-free sides. "Then there are always dishes that can be made vegetarian if there's a request."



And don't get offended, said Bernstein (whose chef-de-cuisine John Narvaez is a vegetarian). It's nothing personal. If the demand for meat-free dishes was greater, they'd make more. But as it stands now, 9 North gets about only one vegetarian request a week.


According to other chefs, this is the real reason restaurants like these don't pile on the vegetarian items they don't have trouble making them, they just have trouble moving them.


Despite serving about "one vegetarian a night" at Cafe Panache, Kohler noted that vegetarian entre as a menu regular "won't really sell."


Calvin Soh, owner of Su, a two-year-old vegetarian restaurant in Edgewater, can attest to that. His menu comprises unique Asian- and Italian-fusion dishes and has drawn a loyal following among vegetarians. (I try to get there once every few weeks.) Despite excellent reviews, though, esoteric-sounding dishes like spinach pistachio roll with eryngii mushrooms or nori-wrapped bean curd just haven't been able to draw attention from as many meat-eaters as he'd hoped.


"I get guys coming in here saying, 'Why am I here? I'm not a vegetarian,' " said Soh, who opened the place for the sophisticated palates of health-minded people like him (an off-and-on vegetarian) and his wife (a vegetarian). "They think we're a bunch of hippies chewing on carrots."


* Compromise: Ironically, most meat eaters will likely find Su more welcoming to their tastes than vegetarians find North Jersey's other restaurants. This is why compromising with your dining companions is as important for vegetarians as compromising with chefs or their menus.


And when you can't compromise, there's always Park and Orchard in East Rutherford, which Garfield's Mike Kivowitz, founder of the veggie-themed blog leafygreen.info, recommended to me awhile back.


"We were looking to create a place that everyone could eat at," said Buddy Gebhardt, who opened the vegetarian-friendly restaurant more than 30 years ago with his brother Ken.


"I would go in and out of being a vegetarian at that time in my life. There were places I could eat and places I couldn't eat if I went out with non-vegetarians, so we wanted a place that served both."


This, I now know, is the place for vegetarians to take a non-veggie date.





Avoiding hidden animal products


Just because something on a restaurant's menu seems vegetarian doesn't always mean it's entirely meat-free.


Chicken and beef stocks routinely dupe lax vegetarians, making appearances in otherwise vegetable-based soups as well as marinara sauces, rice dishes, risottos and an occasional ragout. Bacon is a regular offender, too, popping up unannounced atop seemingly vegetarian salads, bean dishes and potato-based sides.


Here are some other "hidden" animal products:


* Worcestershire sauce and classic Caesar salad dressings contain anchovies.

* Dashi, a common ingredient in miso soup, is made from sardines.

* Gelatin (used in Jell-O, marshmallows and some candies and puddings) is made from animal bones, skin and tendons.

* Animal fats are used to "flavor" everything from beans and breads to pie shells and snack cakes and are also occasionally used in fried foods.

The only way to ensure a dish is meat-free is to ask your server. If given a reasonable heads-up, most chefs are willing to substitute, replacing a chicken broth with a vegetable stock or holding the bacon or Caesar dressing from a salad.


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