In search of the Green Unicorn in Boston

I recently posted about an amazing vegetarian meal I had in Chicago at Green Zebra, and pondered why such a high-end vegetarian restaurant somehow exists in Chicago but not Boston.  I stick by my assessment that there's nothing quite like Green Zebra around here, but let's spend some time seeing what's sort of like it.  For more why isn't Boston more like someplace else soul-searching, see last month's post Talent Wants to be Free.

First things first.  Vegetarian food is available.  You can make it yourself, for one thing.  Between pizza, burritos and falafel, no vegetarian is going hungry anywhere around here.  But what I'm looking for is a sit-down dinner, white tablecloth, table service, wine list, grownup restaurant where vegetarians get more than one or two choices.  Preferably places where the menu is seasonal and local too. So what does the greater Boston area have to offer?

OpenTable (far from exhaustive, but pretty good for the nicer places) gives just one search result for "vegetarian" and that's Tantric Indian Bistro.  Like most if not all Indian restaurants, Tantric has a selection of vegetarian options but does not otherwise qualify as a vegetarian restaurant.  If they are listed as vegetarian, lots more places on OpenTable should be too.  For my Indian restaurant money, veg or otherwise, I prefer downscale Punjabi Dhaba or upscale Tanjore.

Elephant Walk (Boston, Waltham and Cambridge) is worth mentioning for a good list of vegan items, most but not all of them on the Cambodian side of the French-Cambodian menu.

Vegan options are a whole other discussion, and almost all the "fine" veggie options I'm discussing are reliant on dairy and eggs, but I'll call out Grasshopper in Allston and Grezzo in the North End.  Grasshopper is of the possibly-buddhist "mock meat" school where you can order "chicken teriyaki" on the menu and get some seitan-simulation thereof.  If that's your thing, you've lucked out.  If not, you may find it disturbing on many levels.  Grezzo is not just vegan, it's raw.  Nothing is cooked anywhere near boiling.  If that's your thing, you've lucked out.  If not, you may find it disturbing on many levels.

I haven't personally tried either Veggie Planet at Club Passim or the new Pulse Cafe vegan place near Davis but neither seems to be what I'm looking for.

As an omnivore with both friends all over the eating map, and also as somebody who's trying to pay attention to what I'm eating, my ideal choice would be a place that serves a reasonable variety of options - like the Indian places, but more upscale, seasonal, local and of course, with a good wine list.  In this category I nominate VeeVee in Jamaica Plan.  "Vee Vee serves mid-priced, modern American food, with a focus on fresh seafood, vegetables and grains. The menu, which will change seasonally, features local products whenever possible."  So says their website, but they may have backslid on the meatwagon a bit - of the six entrees on the menu right now, three are fish, two have no evident animal parts and one is a pork shank. Even Green Zebra in Chicago has one or two seafood items on the menu most of the time.

In this vein, we also have to discuss omnivore restaurants that have off-menu or little-known vegetarian options. The better a restaurant, the more likely it is that the chef will accommodate diners' preferences when possible.  Sure, lots of fancy places play the "no substitutions" game, but I find that the very best will do almost anything, especially if you give some notice.  (By the way, asking for a substitution or a change is a surefire way to find out what's made to order and what's been stewing since yesterday!) Here are some that I've noted.

Craigie Street Bistrot - now Craigie on Main - is well-known for an "everything but the squeal" approach to eating a pig, but they also have a superb vegetarian tasting menu buried in a footnote on the menu.  It seems to be chef's whim of six or ten courses for the same price as the omnivore version, $90 and $115 respectively.

Bergamot - the newcomer to EVOO's old space near Inman square - offers a $20 vegetarian entree that for some reason is not printed on the menu.  They were willing to serve the nuts on the side with several dishes so I have to assume they would also make meatless versions where practical.

Upstairs on the Square offers five and seven course vegetarian tastings with optional wine pairings ($55-$115) which are very very nice.

Ten Tables (Cambridge and JP) offers a four-course (three savory and a dessert) vegetarian tasting for the remarkable price of $30 (Cambridge, where the omnivore version is $40), and at least the JP location will whip up a vegan version with 24 hours notice.  I had the vegetarian version earlier this week in Cambridge and it was wonderful - first of the season english peas in a lettuce salad, cavatelli with wild mushroom ragout and pea tendrils, purple potatoes, squash and radicchio with spinach puree, and for desserts, chocolate terrine with sea salt and basil ice cream and toasted pound cake with jam and cream. (It's extra nice that even when the whole table had to order the tasting, we got two different desserts at the end)  I must say that I missed the sardines from the regular menu, but three veggie courses left us more than full.

And there are plenty more like those.  They don't quite fill the bill because there's essentially just one vegetarian option, but the multiple courses and ever-changing nature of that one item makes it a good choice if you go once or twice a season or less.  And with prices like those, who goes that much more often?

So we're still on the hunt for the Green Zebra experience in the hub, but it seems there's still a lot of meatless fun to be had here.

14 Responses

  1. I'm a born & bred meat eater but do tend to run with a crowd of vegans/vegetarians/pescetarians. I was recently in San Francisco and whoa.. if there were any comparable restaurants in Boston.. we'd all be in heaven.. BUT.. I think a few options you left off the list are.. Punjab Palace (Indian restaurant in Allston.. love in food form, which is why they have so many admirers), Myers + Chang (a favorite among veggie/vegan friends.. I even have a friend that is vegan w/a nut allergy that adores this place.. although no table cloths), Upstairs on the Square (vegetarian tasting menus that run from $55-70 w/wine pairings for additional $), Oleana (vegetarian tasting menu that is 4 courses and a dessert for $36), TW Food (I've heard of their vegetarian tasting menus, but I guess you need to request them since they're not featured on the website), Muqueca (while there are only a few items of the vegetarian persuasion.. they're amazing in quality.. and that counts for something). It's definitely sad we don't have more dedicated vegetarian places in Boston.. but maybe you should open a restaurant? ;)
  2. Gilly
    <a href="http://www.oleanarestaurant.com/eat-and-drink.asp" rel="nofollow">Oleana</a> does a great veggie tasting menu, and has a lot of nice veggie options on their menu.
  3. Dee
    I've also had good vegan experiences at Oleana, L'Espalier, and Dante.
  4. Ben
    I also read a really good review of the Red Lentil in Watertown by the Weekly Dig; sounded like they had a lot of creative things to choose from. It's not upscale I guess, but if you're more interested in spectrum of offerings than appearance, it'd probably be up one's alley.
  5. Thanks! I've always had a hard time with my "foodie" friends when it comes to deciding where to eat. I've been a vegetarian for eighteen years, and a year ago found out I can no longer have gluten. Uh-oh. The problem is I just can't go back to eating meat after all that time. You should see the fear, and usually also confusion, on waitstaff's faces when I try to explain to them what I can and can't have. :(
  6. Cara
    I have a response regarding being a gluten free vegetarian. I myself am one and have been for the past 2 and 1/2 years. While my dining out experiences have not been to places that offer 3- and 4-course meals, I have overall not had too much trouble finding food that is not just lettuce and tomato on a plate. It's all about the questions you ask and putting together different part of a menu. Kinda like putting a puzzle together. Even a place like Boston Beer Works was able to get creative and cooked veggies in a white wine butter sauce served over rice for me. There's no reason you can't be a gluten-free vegetarian and enjoy a delicious meal out on the town! :)
  7. central squared
    That's a solid list for what's available around here. Sadly, it's still a pretty small list. I liked Red Lentil a lot and will go back, although I think the menu is hit or miss (bland vs tasty). You did miss My Thai in chinatown, which is all vegetarian (it's our only all vegetarian chinese restaurant here, Philly has like 4 or 5). We do have some great Thai places (Brown sugar cafe, Pepper Sky) which have a fair amount of vegetarian stuff. In general, a lot of places have something. Even Hungry Mother has one complete meal for vegetarians (and it's amazing).
  8. Wyatt
    Just a note: watch out for Helmand. It's a "sit-down dinner, white tablecloth, table service, wine list, grownup restaurant" with a vegetarian section. The only problem is that they put meat in the dishes in their vegetarian section! So they trick vegetarians. If you're skeptical, look at their vegetarian menu and search for "lamb" or "beef": http://www.helmandrestaurantcambridge.com/veg5.htm
  9. Thanks to everybody who contributed suggestions, I've got a lot of dining to do to catch up. Some individual notes and comment... @Trish, @Gilly and @Dee -- that's three in a row for Oleana, and I'm ashamed that I didn't mention them. I didn't know there was a vegetarian tasting but I've had plenty of goodness there, meaty and otherwise. @Seth and @Cara -- I haven't even tried to do the survey for gluten-free, but it's very encouraging that Boston Beer Works was able to get creative to meet your needs. @Wyatt -- I've seen some terrible instances of meat showing up unannounced in vegetarian dishes, but I think you've simply found a website error. I've been to Helmand many times and never seen this on the actual menu in the restaurant. One time I even shared the entire vegetarian selection (four entrees and four appetizers if I recall) with some friends. It's great fun to be able to say to the waiter, "bring me one of everything!"
  10. Cara, I've had the best luck at Indian restaurants, which are kind of gluten free and vegetarian by default if you ignore the nan. I've also found a few good trustworthy places locally, and use a smart phone to find restaurants when I'm traveling. When I found out a friend was going to be a chef at a new wine bar across the street, she was nice enough also include a gluten free beer option and a flourless chocolate cake. But when I called up a favorite neighborhood Italian place, they gave me a firm "No" on gluten free pasta. Another one said they'd get it, but never did. I'm in an awkward position with a lot of eateries in my area, because I work hard to promote businesses here in Downtown Lynn but I can't patronize most of them! It's much easier to find places when I'm visiting NYC, or even Philly and Baltimore..and cheaper! Boston moves more slowly for some reason, and that place in the North End..Nobu? Their markup for gluten free just isn't worth it.
  11. Rik Ahlberg
    Sounds to me like Grezzo or Ten Tables would meet your requirements. Love both! Great summary of what's here in e Boston area. It's getting better, but it ain't no San Francisco (I may just fly myself out for a late birthday dinner at Millennium)!
  12. Thanks David! Your plea is heeded and needed. The pizza is excellent at Veggie Planet (their tofu scrabble will serve you well all day) and of course Grasshopper is great. No doubt though, a nice, middle to high-end all veg restaurant would do well here. I pick and choose around here on menus, but it sure would be great to be able to order anything and everything on a menu! I have fond memories of Mother's in Austin...'twas right in my neighborhood. And there were several other veg places in town too! http://www.motherscafeaustin.com/
  13. Pulse is amazing, and you should try it out. There's also an upscale raw place Prana in Newton that's supposed to be good.
  14. Good to know. I have to say every time I'm tempted by Pulse, I get drawn away to Posto (which, BTW has at least one vegan option) Also, word on the veggie-vegan street is that Live Alive (Urban Oasis & Organic Cafe) in Central Square is worth a look: http://www.ipswitch.com/ceo/our-product-is-more-than-software/ And whilst I'm at it, I'm probably late to the game to note that Grezzo has closed their North End location.

Leave a comment