Local restaurants hope to appeal to vegans

For vegetarian and vegan recipes to make at home, see today's Food & Flavor and post-gazette.com/food.

On a recent episode of the Bravo show Top Chef Masters, five successful chefs were asked to prepare a birthday lunch -- one course each -- for actress and singer Zooey Deschanel. They had an ample budget, a reasonable amount of time and a fabulous kitchen where they would prepare the meal.

The catch? Deschanel is a gluten-intolerent vegan (no meat, fish or dairy) who also doesn't eat soy.

Dietary restrictions, some a choice and some a medical necessity, are now as common as fans of the Food Network. So it shouldn't surprise anyone that, with a little creativity and extra effort, the chefs managed to put together a delicious, celebratory meal.

The most successful chefs saw it as an opportunity to highlight quality ingredients, clever techniques and bold flavor profiles, not to lament the absence of meat or cream. Those dishes were praised and enjoyed by everyone at the table, vegan and omnivore alike.

So why is it that so many restaurants, in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, still offer menus with a variety of chicken, veal, beef and seafood options, but with only one or two paltry vegetarian options? Maybe chefs and restaurateurs are just waiting for diners to demand more options, but that seems like an unlikely route for change.

Surveying the local restaurants that treat vegetarian options with respect and enthusiasm (including the area's handful of vegetarian restaurants), it's hard not to notice that these restaurants are also some of the most successful in the city. Coincidence? I don't think so.

Who's Who

Vegetarian: Someone who doesn't eat meat or seafood.

Vegan A vegetarian who also doesn't eat eggs, dairy or honey -- anything that comes from an animal or is produced by an animal.

When restaurants don't have good vegetarian options, every diner loses. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to eat meat (it can be delicious, for one), but most health experts agree that Americans could benefit from cutting down on the amount in their diets. Chefs who can't get excited about plates without meat or seafood usually don't demonstrate much creativity with vegetables, legumes or starches -- even when they're allowed to add bacon. Cooking great vegetarian (and vegan) food is about focusing on what you can use, rather than what you can't.

So where can Pittsburgh diners find good vegetarian food?

Pittsburgh's short list of vegetarian restaurants is a good place to start: Zenith Cafe on the South Side, Quiet Storm in Bloomfield, Hoi Poloi on the North Side and Make Your Mark Coffeehouse in Point Breeze.

At the Quiet Storm, which has the most substantial menu of the group, don't miss the onion triangles ($6), a quesadilla filled with cheddar, Swiss and mozzarella and lots of balsamic onion jam -- so rich and packed with sweet caramelized onion flavor it could hold its own against a pulled pork version. For the more health-focused side of vegetarian food, don't miss the curry of the day ($10). A tomato-eggplant-chickpea version was comfort food that just happened to be health food, too. Served over basmati rice, it also came with flatbread, slaw and a choice of soup, salad or chips and salsa.

Ethnic restaurants, even when they're not explicitly vegetarian-focused, usually have lengthy lists of vegetarian options. Tofu is an essential ingredient in Chinese cuisine and Indian cooking is so legume-focused that there's no need for additional protein. Thai and Vietnamese restaurants are great choices as well, but if you follow a strict vegetarian or vegan diet, you'll want to ask them to leave out the fish sauce.

At China Palace, Shadyside, the menu has more than 100 dishes, a typical length for Chinese restaurants, especially those that balance Chinese-American dishes like sweet and sour chicken ($9.95) with more traditional dishes such as shredded pork with baby shoots and dried bean curd ($12.50). More surprising was the number of vegan offerings, with multiple categories of dishes revolving around meat substitutes made from soy protein and processed wheat gluten. Not every dish was a hit, but the sheer variety of choices was a real pleasure for the strict vegetarian dining with me that evening. If you've never had a good (or any) experience with meat substitutes, try the wheat gluten and eggplant with garlic sauce. Though the sauce was of the sweet, sticky variety, the eggplant had a beautiful, silken texture and the slightly chewy wheat gluten was a pleasant addition to the dish. The crispy taro rolls ($3.50) are also worth sampling, if you like taro's starchy texture and sweet flavor.

The New Dumpling House in Squirrel Hill and the Doublewide Grille on the South Side also are destinations for those who enjoy fake meat.

What about fancier dining options? The Big Burrito restaurants -- Kaya, Casbah, Soba, Umi and Eleven Contemporary Kitchen -- practically have a love of vegetables written into their applications for employment. At Eleven, there's a vegetarian tasting menu side-by-side with the meat and fish focused chef's tasting menu. At Kaya, half the tropas (appetizers) are vegetarian, along with three of the entrees. All of the restaurants offer seasonal dinners throughout the year, inspired by the best fruits and vegetables available.

Kaya prepares a vegetarian dinner (with a number of vegan options) on the third Wednesday of each month ($39 per person, $23 wine package). At last month's dinner the four-course menu (plus extras) focused on corn, tomatoes, melons, cherries and more. One of the most flavorful tamales I've ever tried was filled with chevre and topped with a brunoise of patty pan squash and lime mojo that gave the squash almost a pickled flavor. The best of the entrees was a chanterelle mushroom and green bean saute served over corn cachapas, a sort of savory pancake packed with fresh corn kernels. The simplicity of the dish allowed me to really taste the sweet, delicate flavors of the chanterelle mushrooms, an intriguing contrast to their firm, almost meaty texture.

At the Gypsy Cafe on the South Side, a more casual restaurant that often flies under the radar, the summer menu is inspired by the flavors of the Middle East and Mediterranean. Entrees include a summer vegetable moussaka ($16) with layers of battered and fried eggplant, fried potatoes and summer vegetables, baked with a Romano bechamel and finished with fresh tomato sauce. Loubieh and Polenta ($14) combines the two influences, with herbed polenta topped by a tomato-based sauce made from green beans, onions and garlic.

Restaurants with frequently changing menus are always a good sign if you're willing to trade fewer choices for the best of the season. At Dinette in East Liberty, summer menus generally have more vegetarian options, and a recent menu offered grilled shishito peppers with goat cheese, toasted almonds and fleur de sel ($7) and a pizza topped with grilled zucchini, olive tapenade, pine nuts, ricotta salatta and fresh mozzarella ($14).

Legume Bistro in Regent Square is known to many as a restaurant particularly focused on finding sustainable sources of meat and fish. But chef/owner Trevett Hooper serves vegetarian and vegan customers as well, despite the small size of their ever-changing menu. Legume offers a three-course vegetarian menu ($25) each Wednesday, and on other nights Hooper encourages vegetarian and vegan guests to call in advance to discuss what will be available.

Restaurants mentioned

Casbah, Shadyside, www.bigburrito.com/casbah, 412-661-5656

China Palace, Shadyside (and other locations), chinapalacepittsburgh.com, 412-687-7423

Dinette, East Liberty, www.dinette-pgh.com, 412-362-0202

Eleven Contemporary Kitchen, Strip District, www.bigburrito.com/eleven, 412-201-5656

Gypsy Cafe, South Side, www.gypsycafe.net, 412-381-4977

Hoi Poloi, North Side, www.hoipolloicafe.com, 412-586-4567

Kaya, Strip District, www.bigburrito.com/kaya, 412-261-6565

Legume Bistro, Regent Square, www.legumebistro.com, 412-371-1815

Make Your Mark Artspace and Coffeehouse, Point Breeze, 412-365-2117

Quiet Storm, Friendship, www.quietstormcoffee.com, 412-661-9355

Soba, Shadyside, www.bigburrito.com/soba, 412-362-5656

Umi, Shadyside, www.bigburrito.com/umi, 412-362-6198

Zenith Cafe, South Side, www.zenithpgh.com, 412-481-4833

Others with good vegetarian and vegan dining options

Aladdin's Eatery, various locations, www.aladdinseatery.com

Brillobox, Bloomfield, www. brillobox.net, 412-621-4900

La Feria, Shadyside, www. laferia.net, 412-682-4501

Mad Mex, various locations, www.madmex.com

Oh Yeah! Ice Cream and Coffee, Shadyside, www.customswirl.com, 412-253-0955

The Square Cafe, Regent Square, www.square-cafe.com, 412-244-8002

Tram's Vietnamese Kitchen, Bloomfield, 412-682-2688

Udipi Cafe, Monroeville, 412-373-5581

China Millman can be reached at 412-263-1198 or cmillman@post-gazette.com . Follow China on Twitter at http://twitter.com/chinamillman .


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