20 June 2011

Restaurant review: The Garden Grille is a vegan Eden

Before I went vegetarian, I loved going out for ethnic food. Gosht Shahi Korma (lamb in saffron-cashew sauce) at the Indian place with the fancy table linens? I'm there. Bun Thit Nuong (rice vermicelli with grilled pork) at that pan-Asian hole-in-the-wall? Count me in.

After I became vegetarian, I not only loved ethnic food, but my appreciation increased immensely—given that mainstream "American" restaurants were now, for the most part, dietarily useless to me. I kept going to the same ethnic places, only instead of lamb and pork I was ordering things like Paneer Korma (made with cheese) or Veggie Pad Thai (with its requisite egg).

Once I turned vegan, however, everything changed. It's not that I stopped loving ethnic food. On the contrary, added to the love and appreciation I'd long felt was something entirely new: dependency. With cheese pizza and eggplant parmesan removed from the equation, ethnic restaurants suddenly became my only reliable option when I wanted a meal away from home.

And then I discovered (or really, re-discovered) the Garden Grille Vegetarian Cafe. With its eclectic (yet accessible) menu, the Garden Grille has become the answer to my family's restaurant rut. Basically, our dining-out choices had whittled down to just four options: Indian, Chinese, Japanese, or Middle Eastern. Don't get me wrong—I'm thrilled to live in an area where we have relatively easy access to Baingan Bharta, Szechuan Tofu, Avocado Maki, and Falafel. But after many, many months of noshing exclusively on the ethnic circuit, we felt frustrated that there wasn't a place with "regular" vegan food. This was especially important if we wanted to dine out with people, like our parents, whose palates fall decidedly in the conservative camp.

Which is why my husband and I, after several lip-smacking visits, felt secure in taking his parents out to lunch at the Garden Grille one recent weekend. With its 100% vegetarian (and highly vegan-centric) menu, we knew it was a place that would satisfy us (and give us a break from the ethnic-food merry-go-round), while at the same time would please (and not freak out) our guests. So here's the lowdown on the Garden Grille, where hardcore vegans and mainstream eaters alike can find culinary contentment:

Contemporary and warm, with a slightly upscale feel that is in stark contrast to the low-budget, slightly dinged-up aesthetic so common in veg-friendly nosheries. There are seven roomy booths (two of which look out over the large front window) and six smaller tables, as well as an attractive L-shaped bar that seats 10. The bright, polished wood tabletops make a nice backdrop for the clean lines of the white ceramic dinnerware and clear glassware (nothing plastic here). In all, it's an appealing blend of casual-posh; you'd be at home showing up in shorts after a day at the beach, but you'd also feel fine trying to impress a first date.

The mix of customers is one of my favorite things about the Garden Grille. I knew my in-laws wouldn't be comfortable in a place where they were the only senior citizens, and even I am old enough to feel awkwardly uncool when everyone around me is a 20-something hipster with multiple facial piercings and resplendent dreads. Luckily, the Garden Grille is so popular among such a diverse cross-section of diners, that you feel at ease no matter your demographic. Every time I've dined there, I've been happy to see an amazing assortment of humanity—old and young, gay and straight, daters and loners, families with small children, families with adult children, you name it, everyone belongs.

When Garden Grille first opened in 1996, I lived only 3 streets away. Back then, it was a much more humble affair; what I remember is it being mostly a juice bar whose menu consisted mainly of a few wraps. Imagine my surprise when, returning to my old stomping grounds 15 years later, I find that this once-modest smoothie shop has transformed, Cinderella-like, into a full-scale eatery.
Close up of Reggie's Raw Heaven.

Appetizers (called "small plates") range from $6 to $10. Highlights include Reggie’s Raw Heaven ($10), a gorgeous arugula salad artfully arrayed with slices of mango, grapefruit, and avocado, and topped with beet-infused jicama matchsticks and cashew gamasio. A far cry from the insipid "garden salad" we vegans are too often stuck with, it's a dish I order almost every time I go. Another must-try appetizer is the Chipotle Seitan ($7) served with a sinus-clearing wasabi mustard; this tangy, toothsome delight got raves from both my vegan husband and his carnivore father.

Entreés ("large plates") run from $9 to $12 at lunch and from $9 to $17 at dinner. The Grilled Vegetable Wrap ($8) was a safe choice for my never-to-be-mistaken-for-a-foodie mother-in-law. Stuffed with portabella, asparagus, roasted red pepper, caramelized onions, and arugula, with a touch of tarragon aioli, it's pretty much a classic vegan starter dish—familiar enough not to be off-putting to the average eater, but nothing special to a longtime vegan. (With so many more interesting items on the menu, I doubt I'll ever order it.)

There's a bit more creativity in the Vietnamese Tofu Sandwich ($9), which features tofu covered in a sweet chili glaze, alongside pickled carrots, jalapeno, red onions, lettuce, and a cilantro-mint aioli. Both my husband and my father-in-law had this dish (on separate occasions) and pronounced it very good.

Two of my favorite sandwiches at the Garden Grille are vegan twists on classic favorites: the Tofu BLT ($7) and the Tempeh Reuben ($8). The BLT features crisp, salty tofu "bacon" (love!), and for an extra $2 you can add avocado (which I always do). The Reuben is a delectable combination of grilled tempeh, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, caramelized onions, and thousand island dressing on rye bread. If you're a vegan who misses the Reuben experience (but not the corned beef), this is one highly gratifying concoction.
Cashew and Nori Crusted Tofu
The Garden Grille's fancier entreés are found at dinnertime, and they do not disappoint, either in appearance or taste. I recently tried the Korean Barbeque Tempeh ($16), which featured two substantial pieces of millet-crusted tempeh on a bed of grilled bok choy and shiitake sesame rice, garnished with toasted edamame and nori, with a lovely drizzle of scallion oil. On the same night, my husband ordered an entreé from the Specials menu: Cashew and Nori Crusted Tofu ($15) served on a bed of pan-fried udon noodles. Both dishes were elegant to look at and delectable to eat.

Other dinner entreés that we have yet to try, but are looking forward to, include Eggplant Rollatini ($15), Cauliflower Steak ($16), and Mushroom Risotto Cakes ($17).

Wildflour bakery
The Garden Grille does have a dessert menu, but I've never ordered from it. Why? Well, it turns out that the owners have opened a new all-vegan bakery, Wildflour, just two doors down from the restaurant. So hubby and I make it a habit to visit there after finishing our meals at Garden Grille. If you're a vegan who has never been to a vegan bakery (as we hadn't until we discovered Wildflour), it's an almost out-of-body experience. There, right in front of your eyes, are all the pastries, cookies, brownies, tarts, and cakes of the finest French boulangerie you can imagine—and yet every single morsel is vegan!

Bottom Line:
The Garden Grille Vegetarian Cafe offers delicious, creative food that satisfies the most hardcore vegan without putting off their meat-eating friends. It takes well over an hour for me to get there, but it's always worth it. Highly recommended...and do not visit without checking out their new sister business, the gorgeous Wildflour vegan bakery!

Elizabeth Gordon | Facebook
Elizabeth is an Asian-Appalachian writer, activist, and college professor living in north central Massachusetts. Once an avowed carnivore, she was a vegetarian for 15 years before making the conversion to veganism. She is passionate about trying to live a life that lessens, rather than contributes to, the amount of cruelty and suffering in this world. Follow Elizabeth on her Vegosphere blog and Facebook page.

Photo credits: Elizabeth, Garden Grille