Vegan Dining: The Good, the Bad, and the Bitter
November 15, 2010

Last weekend, I said a few words about a recent dinner at one of my all time favorite restaurants: Candle 79. As much as I love returning to and writing about old favorites, though, it’s even more thrilling to review new vegan dining spots. In the last few weeks, I’ve had occasion to try a couple of new vegan or vegan friendly restaurants. I wish I could say that the meals were universally good: they weren’t, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t an adventure to experience them.

Let’s start on a positive note. Two weeks ago, M and I were searching for vegan friendly dining spots in Long Island. Hopeless Manhattanite that I am, I barely know Brooklyn dining, let alone where to eat in Bay Shore. Thanks to the genius that is Yelp, however, I quickly found Tula Kitchen–a very well reviewed, very vegan friendly restaurant with an eclectic, cozy vibe. If you’re wondering what “Tula” means, so was I. Here’s the owner, Jacqueline Sharlup’s, explanation:

“Each and every one of us has our own personal goals in life that we strivetowards everyday. The most important things in my life have always been family, friends, love, laughter, health & belief in ones cause. The key to maintaining all of that is through “balance”. When i discovered the word “Tula” which is the sanskrit meaning for balance, I knew in my heart that it was the perfect name. To be surrounded by delicious, nutritious food, good company & enjoy oneself implicitly is to be at tula. We thank you for allowing Tula to be part of your balance.”

What a nice philosophy! And I think that the idea of balance is omnipresent in the Tula dining experience. The atmosphere is playful, but not silly; the lighting is dim, but not dark; the menu is extensive, but not overwhelming; the food is healthy, but not austere. Most of all, the menu–which you can peek at online–caters to healthy eaters of all varieties, including omnis and vegans.

In my heart of hearts, I’d like for every restaurant menu in the world be 100% animal free. But I’m also a realist, and I know that change is most likely to happen through generous exchanges between vegans and omnis. I love and support vegan eateries, and, if the task of choosing a restaurant falls to me, I will always choose to give my money to an exclusively vegan dining establishment. But I realize that segregating the fine dining world into vegan and non-vegan restaurants can compound the idea that veganism is exotic and “fringe.” We need more restaurants that offer tasty and expertly made vegan and non-vegan entrees side by side. Vegans and omnivores won’t have to compromise when they dine out together, and–more importantly–omnivores might be tempted to rethink the assumption that a proper meal involves an animal protein. Restaurants like Tula are blazing the trail of restaurant dining that’s equally vegan and omni friendly. And I hope that, when vegans bring omnis to Tula, the omnis might be tempted to try some of the vegan fare there in lieu of fish or poultry.

After examining the generous menu for a few moments, M and I were ready to order. He started with a small salad with roasted beets, cherry tomatoes, and glazed walnuts, which was very tasty and not too stingy a portion. (Sorry about the iPhone photography, guys! I’m terrible at bringing my camera out and about with me.)

I was going to get a hummus appetizer, until I realized that the owners of Tula have made the genius choice to serve warm pita bread and chickpea salad in place of a normal breadbasket. Free! Free!

Genius idea. All restaurants should do this. Tula charges for a second helping of bread, but in truth, if I always had the option of bread this good on the table, I’d order seconds every time. Yum.

For my main course, I got something predictable: roasted vegetable salad with broccoli, eggplant, summer squashes, red onion & roasted garlic, topped with fresh lemon (there’s feta in the original salad, which of course I had them hold). It was truly as close to perfect as any salad I didn’t make myself can be: tasty, well seasoned, colorful, and HUGE.

Bless you, Tula, for understanding the concept of generous portion sizes. This hungry vegan lady thanks you:

M took a different route, and ordered the tempeh reuben. I’ll admit, I’ve never had either a normal or a vegan reuben, but I had a bite of his sandwich, and it was stellar. I’m partial to anything with tempeh, it’s true, but this was special:

We also agreed that this was by far the best vegan coleslaw we’d ever had; not sure how they made it, precisely (my guess is vegannaise + apple cider vinegar), but it was just like the conventional dish.

We left Tula with full bellies, raving about what a happy find it was. If this restaurant were just a little closer to the Upper West Side, I’d be a serious regular. As it is, I may need to find an excuse to go back. Hmmm. Golf? The ferry to Fire Island? We’ll see.

A week later, M and I found ourselves once again on a vegan dining mission. This time, though, we were in D.C. On my first night there for the weekend, M and I had been loading up on groceries at Whole Foods when I was cheerfully greeted my Mallory, a D.C. reader. She’d commented upon my D.C. Dining post with the suggestion that I try Cafe Green, which is a new sister restaurant to the already popular Java Green. Cafe Green has a mixed raw and cooked menu, which I thought I’d love, and M had even tried out there brunch with a raw foods loving friend, who gave the raw pancakes two thumbs up. In short, we have every reason to believe this place would be a winner. Oh, how wrong we were.

Now, I hate bashing vegan restaurants. Really, I do. I think all vegan dining establishments are doing a great service simply by existing, and by showing the world how awesome vegan food is. So it is with a heavy heart that I tell you that this was one of the least satisfying dinners I’ve had in a long time. I think a number of factors are to blame for the overall failure. It began with ambiance. When I got to Cafe Green, it was noisy, crowded, and really brightly lit. There were two seating options: a table downstairs right next to the bar–and I do mean right next to it–which would have meant our overhearing a lot of painful cocktail hour chit chat. The other option was at a communal table upstairs. While the idea of a communal table is charming, it’s just hard for me to get cozy with the reality of it–the noise, the imposition, the efforts to be civil at the end of a long day, when all one really wants is to speak quietly with one’s boyfriend.

Of course, no restaurant is to blame for having only a few tables available at 8 on a Saturday night. So I resolved not to fret too much. As it turns out, when M arrived, two stools by the window opened up, so we had a chance to sit in a more private space. But there were soon other things to fret over. The lights were still too bright, the noise still really loud, and that at this point the smells wafting into the dining area from the open kitchen had become a little overpowering. There were also scented candles at each table. Isn’t it a basic rule of restaurant design that scented candles are a no-no, because they disturb everyone’s senses? I thought so, anyway.

The first thing that struck me upon perusing the menu was that the coconut water was even more expensive than it is at Pure Food and Wine, where it’s pricey because it’s supposedly certified organic (I have my doubts about that, but at least the claim somewhat validates the cost). It was $8, and not specified as organic! I was so surprised I snapped a photo of the menu:

…and ordered the Kombucha instead. It was bottled, not house made, but it hit the spot.

The menu looked pretty great, and raw options were happily abundant. I asked our server if I could start with the seaweed soup, which was described as “cold soup with seaweed, cucumber, radish, peppers and topped with mung bean sprouts.” For my entree, I decided on the Mango Kale Delux: “a dinner version of our mango kale salad, topped with avocado and served with a side of raw bread and spread.” Sounds awesome, right?

I was promptly told, though, that there was no more raw bread. Given that the elimination of bread would render this only an appetizer portion, I asked what else they could do: perhaps I could just get the regular, cooked cornbread instead? As it turns out, they were out of that, too. The next best option, I thought, would be an order of kale chips. But guess what? They were out of that, too. And when I asked if they might simply give me some of the bread they use to make pizza, I was told that they were out of that as well–which meant, actually, that they were out of all of the pizzas on the menu. In short, 90% of the raw menu, salads aside, weren’t being served that night.

OK, I thought. I’ll make the best of this. I asked the server simply to bring an entree sized portion of the mango salad, and be done with it.

You should have seen the look on my face, friends, when that salad came. I wish I’d gotten a photo for you; I did manage to find another photo of the salad online, from a restaurant review. But it actually looks generous, as you can see:

…whereas the salad I was served was about 1/3 of this. One. Third. I kid you not. I was amazed. It actually occurred to me to ask our server if he’d brought out an appetizer sized portion by accident, but I knew he hadn’t. In about four forkfuls, I was finished with the salad, and still starving. I figured I’d at least start on the soup, which we did manage to get a photo of:

At this point in the evening, disappointment turned to irritation. The soup was literally inedible. It was all apple cider vinegar–so much that my eyes watered as a tried to get it down (and those of you who’ve tried my recipes and seen how much lemon I use know that I like my food with some acid in it.) Aside from the bitterness, the soup demonstrated practically no artistry: it was water and vinegar with no spices, and strips of red pepper thrown in. The kitchen hadn’t even bothered to julienne the pepper nicely before serving. It was totally amateurish, and for someone who loves raw soup, a major bummer.

Still hungry, and totally annoyed, I finally asked for another order of the kale salad. Our waiter was a gem, at least as far as attitude and manners go. But at that moment I think he could have offered some sort of creative remedy to the meal’s lack of substance–which was in part the fault of the kitchen for running out of so many items, including the raw bread. He dutifully brought me another infant-sized salad, which I wolfed down, but he offered little apology or recompense.

M’s meal wasn’t bad. He got some sort of soy chicken cutlet served with vegetables and a tasty sauce. But even that was a stingy portion, and guess how we both knew it? Ten minutes later we were walking up and down the aisles of Safeway, searching for more food. A supermarket run at 10:30 pm is the true sign of a restaurant failure. We were actually so hungry that we couldn’t settle on what we wanted. M finally emerged with some Grape Nuts and whole wheat English muffins; I got a bar of vegan dark chocolate and called it a night. The chocolate was good as dessert–the best thing I’d eaten that night–but hardly compensation for a disappointing and expensive dinner.

Look, I’m no sadistic critic. I know that it’s hard to keep a kitchen going, especially when a restaurant is relatively new, and I know that raw food requires a lot of prep. It’s why Pure is an expensive dining experience, and guess what? That’s as it should be. Half of the food there takes more than 24 hours to make. But quite frankly, if you’re not up to the task of preparing raw food, and the challenges that come with it, then you should either not offer it at all, or simply offer salads and soups. And if you do offer salads and soups, you should be aware of the fact that simple food has to be perfect: you can’t hide bad ingredients or flavors in a minimalist dish–it’s part of why I like simple cooking, because it keeps me focused on quality flavors and produce. Diners deserve better than soup that reeks of vinegar or salads that are tasty (which the kale was), but minuscule, and marked at the same prices as other entrees.

In theory, Cafe Green is doing a great service by putting vegan food into the world at all. They’re serving both raw and cooked options, and I applaud them for that, and they’ve tried to create a homey, sweet atmosphere. I can see that, and I’m sorry that I brought with me expectations that were, perhaps, a little too high. But the prices at Cafe Green really aren’t cheap, and for what they charge, I think they owe customers a lot better. I think it’s likely I visited on a rough night–clearly, the kitchen hadn’t anticipated the volume it got, which is why so much food ran low. But there’s still no excuse for so many shortages on a Saturday night at dining prime time, and there’s really no excuse for inedible soup.

As much as I want to unilaterally support vegan restaurants, I also expect a lot of them! They are, after all, ambassadors of vegan dining, and I expect them to set a professional example. I think that Cafe Green is perfectly poised to do that — I just hope they’ll smooth out some of the kinks soon.

All was not lost in D.C., however. On Sunday, M and I hit up Asylum for brunch, where I was able to get a tasty salad and some filling hummus. I’m not such a hard diner to please, I promise: give me decent hummus, and I’m a happy girl.

And M’s buckwheat pancakes were pretty tasty, too!

I suppose that vegan dining, like all fine dining, involves a range of success and failure. But hey, when hiccups happen, there’s always an 11 p.m. bar of dark chocolate to keep me company.

What was your last vegan restaurant outing? Was it a success?

xo

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    40 Comments
  1. I too had was to totally disappointed by the experience at cafe green. Bland, high sodium food, samll portions and high prices = fooled me once.

  2. living right outside DC, i was definitely excited for cafe green to open up. i just recently made it down there, and was also disappointed–out of raw bread, stained and dirty dishes, and i couldn’t even hear the waitress because she was mumbling the whole time. the ambiance there, though, i found to be quite pleasant, and a definite move in the right direction for DC vegan food.

    i do love java green (the mango kale salad that they serve there and at cafe green is one of my favorites) and their smoothies are awesome, too.

    another great place to look for vegan-friendly dining near DC is definitely takoma park. in their downtown area, nearly every restaurant has an abundance of vegan options (mark’s kitchen being my personal favorite)

    hopefully cafe green will be able to get its act together, because it definitely does have potential!

  3. I tried to leave a comment yesterday but no luck! Jenna if you come to Montreal try Crudessence- delicous raw vegan food beautifully presented- “sushi de vie” and their hamburger are amazing. And the key lime pie. Washed down with the Chia shake- making my own mouth water.

    Also Aux Vivres on St. Laurent (vegan but not raw) has the most amazing chapati BLT made with smoked coconut for the bacon- they also make fabulous brunches and have the cutest patio to sit out in the summer.

    Other vegetarian places to try in Montreal are Chu Chai and Casa del Popolo. In general Rachel Street on the Plateau has all kinds of vegan treats- even a little organic mushroom shop! And you would probably also love Rachel Berry, the organic chain grocery store here.

  4. Lived right around the corner from Cafe Green and REALLY wanted to like it, but had the exact same experience as you each time I went — overpriced, out of half the items on the menu, and frankly not that great. Waitstaff were not particularly eager to help, either. Glad to see this review!

  5. There’s a place in Providence that I go to with my mom when I’m visiting her. It’s called the Red Stripe, and no, it’s not a Jamaican bar – on the contrary, it’s a French brasserie. Anyway, I love the place. It’s not a vegan restaurant, but it’s got a great vibe, and the food is impeccable. Funnily enough, I’m not vegan, but I almost always eat vegan when out, which is (generally) easy enough to do from the appetizer menus. But here I decided to go with the meditteranean wrap, sans feta cheese, sans dressing, and sans wrap. I was counting on a big, fresh green salad with hummus and lemon. The salad was big, fresh and delicious, but it came with, literally, a couple tablespoons of hummus. Hard to believe that’s all there is in the sandwich, but maybe. Anyway, I ate everything on my plate and was still, well, starving. I was really disappointed that they didn’t automatically substitute extra hummus for the ingredients I left out, and nothing’s worse than leaving a restaurant still hungry. Guess next time I’ll have to ask them to quadruple the hummus.

  6. That actually doesn’t surprise me about Cafe Green. I had a similar experience with Java Green once. I’ve gone there to eat the cooked food long ago, then recently when trying to order raw foods they gave me a run around about being out of everything because the chef was off for 3 days. Ok, so who else did the cooking/uncooking? So disorganized. I think raw folks in DC claim to like this place because the area is so unfriendly to raw folks in general their standards are very low. Keep searching in DC, I need to know what to eat when I visit my family!

  7. I lived in DC until shortly before Cafe green opened and jar heard nothing bit the exact same thing. Such a shame because Java Green, despite slow service, is utterly delicious.

    Oh and on a separate note, they’re opening a Zen Palate near Columbia in the next month. So excited! 105th @Broadway. Woot!

  8. That’s such a bummer that you had a negative experience at Cafe Green! I was actually there for brunch yesterday — the one meal that seems to consistently deliver, at least for me and my friends — and we were having a conversation about how badly we want the restaurant to do a better job for the non-breakfast meals. Among eight of us at the table, no one had had a good lunch or dinner experience (save for the mac ‘n’ cheese, which was excellent the first time I had it, and good yesterday when I maybe ordered it as a brunch side dish), which is such a bummer because we do love the brunch. Maybe they will hear our pleas and get their act together? In the meantime, I look forward to hearing about your other vegan dining adventures in the District!

  9. Argh, Cafe Green is totally the star child of DC’s vegan food movement, which annoys the bajeezus out of me because it’s not at all a good representation of what vegan food can be. When I first moved to DC just a couple of months ago, I was thrilled to eat there, only to find that they were out of raw bread, kale, and other menu staples that day too. I settled for a sandwich that was really kind of sickening…I hate to sound dramatic, but the artificial cheese flavor was just overwhelming. Glad to hear that I’m not crazy for not loving the place.

    Venues on my DC hit list: Soul’s Vegetarian Exodus, Everlasting Life Cafe, and Science Club. If you go to any of these places before I do, I’d love to hear what you think!

    • As a recent emigrant from DC, I can say with wholehearted fervor, “Go to Everlasting Life. Today.”

      Their kale salad is the best I’ve ever had and it’s what got me started on eating raw kale. (It’s very garlicky though, so it might not be for you, Gena!)

      I’ve had less success at Soul Veg because I’m intolerant to soy and most of what they were serving was chock full of it. My other vegan buddies loved the place, though!

  10. Hey lovely… you give the best blogs. 🙂
    but really… warmest writing style no wonder we all adore you.
    My dad lives in DC and always wondered where I’d try eating there… will probably skip this one. Anyway I just checked a bottle of our coconut water to make sure i”m not crazy but it does say certified organic, listing the certifier. It comes shipped to us frozen and it’s so much fresher tasting than what we used to get from coconut shipped over whole (which could be hit or miss, and the coconuts weren’t frozen, so much less fresh than when it’s frozen at the source.) Anyway, we get it from exotic superfoods. really good stuff, but we pay so much for it ourselves if we charged less we’d be losing on it. Now I’m craving coconut water… the bottle I checked was empty, I’m at home. And… hummus from your pretty photos.
    BIG hug and kiss… xoxo S

    • Hi love!!!

      If there is a certified organic coconut anywhere in the world, I know it’s the one you guys are using at Pure. Seriously. I didn’t at all mean for that to sound like my questioning your integrity! I just wonder how easy it is to monitor and control that stuff — but I guess that doubt could apply to all organic food, right? We gotta just hunker down and have faith in our sources at some point.

      Anyway, hope you enjoyed the review. I really do hold you guys up as my ultimate standard in raw dining, which is part of why I have such high expectations.

      And by the way, I am *really* excited to bring M to the restaurant! He’s never been, ever 🙂

      LOVES. XOXO

      • I love how you call him “M”… I refer to mine on-line as “BF”… just boyfriend. but often ppl think I mean best friend. And yes, organic label often questionable especially depending on where it’s from. Was a big to-do about whole foods’ organic california frozen veg mix coming from china. But yeah we go w/ the best we can find alway.
        Anyway… let me know when you guys r coming in. Extra sake for your cocktails. 😉 XOXO!! kisses from my puppy dog too.

  11. So sorry about the bad experience! But Tula sounds stellar–and I ADORE tempeh Reubens! I’ve made them on occasion but haven’t thought of one in ages. Now I need to work on a new, GF one! 🙂

    Latest vegan restaurant meal = our usual Middle Eastern spot: hummus and Israeli salad (tiny cubed tomato and cucumber with red onion). Good, but mostly a necessity for me since there’s really not much else I can eat on their menu, but at least it’s a place at which both my honey and I can eat!

  12. Toronto has a very hyped restaurant called Fresh, where the menu LOOKS delicious, but the salads are so mediocre that I can never finish them (and I can eat a tub of salad). It’s not organic and the waiters are terribly slow and spaced out!

  13. I totally understand that you don’t want to trash talk any vegan restaurants – I find myself doing the same thing. BUT, as you said, they’re ambassadors of vegan food. There are probably people in that restaurant that night who had never been to a vegan restaurant before and now think that all vegan food is unappetizing, expensive, and leaves you hungry. 🙁

    I hardly ever go out to eat but the last restaurant I went to was Real Food Daily in Santa Monica (I went to a blogger meetup). It was way too expensive to be more than a special occasion treat but the food was definitely delicious.

  14. “warm pita bread and chickpea salad in place of a normal breadbasket. Free! Free!”–Oh that’s hitting the jackpot!

    The infant sized salad portion…I chuckle and shake my head, b/c yes, that’s what happens in restaurants (most). Or it’s not really hearty lettuce and other veggies. It’s iceburg and shredded carrots and that’s it.

    So sorry that you were hitting up the grocery store after dinner. Oh that is a BAD sign! Spending time and money on a dinner out…and then spending time and money grocery shopping b/c you’re still hungry! Ive been there but not for many years b/c I rarely go out these days.

    I cook at home to save money and b/c it’s hard going out for dinner with a toddler anyway. But I had a similar hitting up a convenience store at 11pm moment in San Fran last week. Not fun!

    But hey, nothing like a little 11p snack of dark choco as you mentioned 🙂

  15. I went to Cafe Green a couple weeks ago and had an experience similar to yours; very loud, very poor service, tiny portions, and yes, they were out of everything on the menu.. even potatoes! I’ve had good luck at other restaurants in DC though, namely meskerem, an ethiopian restaurant with a separate vegetarian menu and extremely generous portions.

  16. Having lived in DC as a vegan, I’ve been to cafe green. and you’re right…. not very good! The ONE time I went they were out of things too… and i dont know, it all tasted very canned to me. DC is in need of a good vegan restaurant!

  17. wow that soup looks like grocery store crudite in some water broth. weird! sorry you had a bad experience. my favorite vegan/raw restaurant (admittedly one of the only ones i’ve been to) is chaco canyon here in seattle. their food is great! i just had some awesome pumpkin pie there. i recommend it if you’re in the area.

  18. Karyn’s Cooked in Chicago, which is awesome. But I think her new Karyn’s on Green is even better, more high-end and better flavor. Anyway both of those are awesome, and non-vegan folks love them too.

    Also looking to try Cousin’s in Chicago as well, I’ve heard it’s amazing!!!

  19. Living in Memphis, TN, there are literally no vegan restaurants here. I am making a trip up to Philadelphia, my hometown, next month, and I will be going to Horizons, on which I decided after you blogged about it. Sorry to hear about your unfortunate dining experience!

    • I live in Memphis too, unfortunately. There is one vegan “restaurant” that I know of. It’s tiny and just run by one guy. It’s called Balewa’s and it’s tucked inside of the Smooth Moves on Union just a little bit west of Cooper. Not really a place I go to sit down and eat though because it has more of a convenience store vibe to it than cafe. (Also I don’t live anywhere near it and am rarely in that area) All that being said, the food is incredible. He makes the most amazing veggie burger that I’ve ever had. I’ve never asked, but I’m pretty sure it’s raw, too. I highly highly recommend it.

  20. I really enjoy reading your blog, recipes and food philosophy!

    I live in Sweden and here the raw/vegan scene here leaves a lot to ask for when it comes to restaurants… However, I was in London over the weekend and had a wonderful raw Pad Thai at raw/vegan restaurant Saf in Shoreditch.

  21. Such a bummer. I found all of the vegan food in DC to be pretty universally over-priced. It’s much cheaper to eat that way in NYC and SF – I think because there’s so many options they have to compete whereas Java Green pretty much has the market cornered in that area of Dupont so they charge ridiculous prices.

  22. Gosh, last night’s dinner seems even more worth it now! It may have stripped my wallet bare, but it was impeccable, and I will gladly pay for that.

    Yeah, scented candles in a restaurant piss me the hell off – such a no-no. I was out for ethiopian the other night and they were burning INCENSE. Ugh, so wrong.

  23. Sorry you had such a negative experience at Cafe Green, that’s definitely why I recommended Java Green, same people run it but the experiences have nothing to do with each other, and the food there is amazing compare to what I’ve had a Cafe Green unfortunately! Glad the rest of your trip looked brighter though 🙂

  24. Have you ever been to Philadelphia? If you’re ever in the city of brotherly love czech out Horizons. I was utterly blown away by the fresh, nuanced and sophisticated flavors that showed up on my table. Although it is too pricy for an every day indulgence, it is one of my favorite “fancy” restaurants in the city.

    Although, on second thought, the salad portions were pretty small. What gives?

  25. WOW! I live on long island and have never come across a vegan friendly restaurant!! How did I not know about this hidden treasure?! Must go there! Next time you go there, I shall come too 😉

  26. I’ve only gone to a vegan reestaurant once, and it was really really tasty – they used spices really well and there were many unusual and flavorfull dishes.

    There is a raw vegan restaurant in Ottawa that’s been getting excellent reviews, and I have been meaning to go there as well. For some reason, I’ve always thought of vegetarian or vegan restaurants as making more of an effort when it comes to menu and presentation, but I guess that’s not always the case.