The Vegetarian Option: Weddings

Getting into the spirit!

It’s wedding season… again! A menagerie of formal sit down dinners, buffets, and lowered expectation. Vegetarians often suffer through meals which the cook –I hesitate to say chef—probably didn’t even bother to taste. We all love our friends no matter the quality of the event, but I can’t help but hold those with outstanding vegetarian options above the others. As I ready for this year’s weddings, which will take me from LA to NYC to South America, here’s a look at the most notable meals from last year’s season:

The Vegetarian Option: Weddings

Cha-Am (Berkeley, CA)

I put this on top because I can't even remember what it was...

I’ve dined at Cha-Am for many years, but can’t seem to remember why. Perhaps it’s the whimsical treehouse dining room, overlooking Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto. Maybe it’s the food, but nothing springs to mind. And so, in this state of uncertainty, I selected Cha-Am for dinner with my Beau’s best friend.

The orange dining room

Walking through the door, everything looked familiar—orange walls, bamboo-colored wood, potted plants strewn about. The menu is typical Thai-American fare with plenty of vegetarian options. Once the food arrived, however, it struck me. This restaurant is completely forgettable, except for one ‘best of show’ dish: The Cha-Am-Fresh Roll.

Cha-Am (Berkeley, CA)

Manpuku (Berkeley, CA)

The hand roll is blurry because it is irrelevant

The evolution of vegetarian sushi stalled a long time ago. I love kappa maki, avocado rolls, inari, futomaki and tomago as much as the next vegetarian, but after years of eating these monotonous platters over and over, I’ve grown completely disenchanted. So whenever I come across ANY vegetarian sushi innovation, my attention is piqued. Manpuku (Berkeley, CA)

La Note (Berkeley, CA)

There's never enough room for all the good eats!

When you visit Berkeley, you’re faced with many tempting options, from South Indian chaat at Vic’s to Michelin-rated California cuisine at Chez Panisse. Be sure, however, to reserve at least one morning for my absolute favorite brunch spot in the East Bay—La Note. In my college days, I spent leisurely hours between classes nibbling on baguettes with raspberry jam in the dappled light of the garden patio. Today, their provincial French breakfast plates are just as I remember them…easily worth the 500 mile drive from Los Angeles.

The colors are not accidental! It's as delicious as Christmas morning!

My favorite dish is the elegantly simple Tartine Mistral ($7.5). A skinny toasted baguette—slathered with *just enough* goat cheese—then  topped with mounds of basil chiffonade and slick roasted peppers. Despite its minimalism, every mouthful is an event. With each bite, the crisp baguette crust crackles in your mouth, followed by a clingy pull of wooly white bread. As the sharp goat cheese prances over your tongue, sweet peppers burst between your teeth and your nose fills with the fragrance of fresh basil. It’s an edible symphony! La Note (Berkeley, CA)

Mario’s La Fiesta (Berkeley, CA)

The taco's look great, but I'd rather eat two burritos!

In 1999, I moved from Los Angeles to the Bay Area, where I discovered the world of Mission-style burritos. At first I was dazzled by the baby blanket-sized tortillas stuffed with whole beans, rice, cheese, lettuce, pico, crema, guacamole… so big, so filling! But it wasn’t long before I grew weary of these overpriced behemoths pouring out of every taqueria in San Francisco (for a time, you could find me at Taqueria el Buen Sabor every weekend). That’s when I met Mario’s. Mario’s La Fiesta (Berkeley, CA)

Falai: A study in two visits (New York, NY)

Chapter 1 – Victory
As I (very slowly) packed up my Brooklyn apartment, my mom came into town for one last NYC hurrah. As a dedicated Food Network viewer, she arrived with many “Have you heard of X Y or Z?!” suggestions—many of which I, of course, had heard of…except for Falai.

Delicately rich

We headed over right after work and so it was no surprise to walk into an empty restaurant. Once seated, the waiter came by with a tray of various breads. Now, our reason for choosing Falai in the first place was Chef Iacopo Falai’s notable stint as Executive Pastry Chef at Le Cirque 2000, so our expectations were high. Two petit brioche nuggets were plucked from the tray and served with a shallow dish of olive oil and balsamic. The brioche was—dare I say—perfect! Like a buttery bonbon, we savored the sweet morsels and prepared for the next course: more bread!

Follow the sweet onion down the rabbit hole

After placing our order, the bread monger reappeared and offered us fresh Pane Dolce wrapped around sweet onions. Like a savory rugelach, we nibbled through the rich, flaky spiral toward ribbons of sweet white onion. Falai: A study in two visits (New York, NY)

Bricks and Scones (Los Angeles, CA)

Unassuming...

At the north end of the Larchmont Blvd shopping district sits Brick and Scones, a swank library-quiet wi-fi haven well known by locals. It’s the study you wish you had at home. But all of this is beside the point, because the point of being here is to eat Korean-style Chewy Sesame Rolls!

Why, hello there...

The dairy-free/gluten-free Sesame Roll ($2.50), served warm by request, is a ball of joy. Flakes fall as you rip through the skin, revealing a chewy inner-heart of mochi, black sesame, and air bubbles. Each Sesame Roll is unique as a geode, full of densely speckled flesh with a whisper of sugar. Bricks and Scones (Los Angeles, CA)

ABC Kitchen (New York, NY)

The mix matched vegetable spoils!

One month after moving to Los Angeles, New York Magazine cruelly published an entire issue dedicated to the future of vegetables. Anchored with the article Vegetables Are the New Meat, the magazine declared, “At serious restaurants all over town, carrots, peas, and the like are no longer just the supporting cast – they’re the stars. Move over locavores, here come the vegivores.” Fortunately, I’d already booked my friend’s sofa for a return flight back East!

After thoroughly reading New York Mag’s “The Vegetable Movement’s Must-Visit Restaurants,” I gathered a party of 4 to dine at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s ABC Kitchen— quite possibly “the vegivore restaurant of the year”! Apparently everyone else had the same idea. I had to pull strings to secure a 8:00pm Saturday night reservation with just a few days notice… not that I actually know important people, but I do know their personal assistants!

Toastie!

There was no question that the Roasted Kabocha Squash Toast with fresh ricotta and apple cider vinegar ($10) would be the very first dish I ordered. According to all the press outlets that matter, it’s a top vegivore dish at ABC. Was it life changing?! Well, no… but imagine silky kabocha slivers lying in a bed of ricotta and crackling whole grain bread with a sprinkle of rooftop basil leaves. It may not change your life, but it will give you a solid 10 minute foodie high. ABC Kitchen (New York, NY)

NY Dosas (New York, NY)

The man, hard at work making YOUR dosa!

On a sunny spring/summer/fall day in Manhattan, there are few pleasures that can match the joyous decompression of a picnic in the park… especially when that picnic is catered by a madly delicious vegan dosa food cart. Hidden in plain sight among the pretzel and hot dog venders of Washington Square Park, 2007 Vendy Award winning Thiru Kumar’s made-to-order dosas, idly, and uthappam are a spicy treat!

Pancakes! Not just breakfast and breakfast-for-dinner anymore!

My first time here I was clearly a newbie, but being an educated newbie, I ordered the Jaffna Lunch — 4 small pancakes made with “natural herbs” topped with spicy dried chutney and served with a Samosa ($6). Why not the Pondicherry Dosa? Well, despite the excessive online praise for this dosa, when I saw the guy in front of me receive his, all I could think was that it looked like a salad in a crepe… and that wasn’t going to cut it , because I was HUNGRY!

NY Dosas (New York, NY)

Eleven Madison Park (New York, NY)

We cleared the room...

I spend the entire month confirming, reconfirming, and reconfirming my decedent Five Course Vegetarian Gourmand lunch reservation at Eleven Madison Park. Having read the phrase “EMP has the best vegetarian tasting menu in Manhattan” on Yelp and Chowhound ad nauseum, to say my expectations (and anticipation) were high is not an overstatement. We began the fanciful gourmand journey at 2:00pm and by 3:30pm, forcing down the final crumb of exquisite macarons, we were the last men standing in the shimmering gold deco dining room at the base of the iconic Met Life Tower.

We look delicious but taste like air!

As expected (I can’t decide if it’s funny or crass that these “compliments of the kitchen” bites are now anticipated, or even demanded in a tasting menu) we were presented with a square bowl of Gougeres. The delicately cheesy bread is like eating air with carbs… which is not really a good thing, but in this case, not a bad thing either… Eleven Madison Park (New York, NY)