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.
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.