Getting Creative with Plants
The Lunch Room reviewed
by M.B. Lewis
From the January, 2014 issue
Foodies discovered vegetarianism decades ago, and the local produce movement has been nothing short of wonderful for enhancing the crisp brightness of plant-oriented cuisine. But veganism, which pushes vegetarianism to the limit by nixing not only meat and fish but also eggs and dairy (including, gasp, cheese and butter), would seem to reduce options by orders of magnitude.
Apparently, the owner-chefs of the Lunch Room in Kerrytown have not heard this news. Or they subscribe to a different kind of math, wherein food minus everything animal related still equals a lot of possibilities.
The Lunch Room is manna for eaters who avoid animals. "It's both exciting and relaxing to look at the menu and know I can have anything on it," said a longtime vegetarian who came along for a test drive of the Lunch Room in early December. "I don't have to read everything in the salad to see if there's bacon or be surprised when the portabella option listed with burgers turns out to be a burger with a slice of mushroom on top."
But the Lunch Room isn't defined by its restrictions. The southwestern salad of Cuban-spiced black beans, avocado, and tortilla chips over cumin-lime rice and crunchy purple cabbage would be a hit anywhere. The roasted sweet and white potatoes dusted with curry are as satisfying as any deep-fried critter-tenders or French fries--neither of which could be prepared here anyway, because the owners decided a fryer didn't fit with their healthy orientation.
Omnivores and vegetarians alike raved about the "TLT" and Reuben sandwiches, both created around marinated and baked slabs of the vegetable protein tempeh; house-made rye bread that's almost garlic toast delectable helped a lot. You won't miss any animal-sourced fat in the dainty baguette, which holds up surprisingly well in a Vietnamese-style pickled veggie sandwich with garlicked tofu. Vegan baked goods are a big selling point here--it's impressive how many varieties of savories and sweets fill the display case. A few standouts
include super-sweet cherry almond cookies and an iced peppermint doughnut with minuscule flecks of real mint leaves baked in for flavor that's authentic but not overpowering. Note of caution: vegan shortening can harden cookies to the point you may want to dip them in your coffee, chai, or cocoa (with coconut or almond milk as the "cream").
We all agreed that only vegans are likely to love the Lunch Room's mac and cheese, because they're not as accustomed to the creamy rich cheese version as the rest of us are. It looks almost right (if a little dry), because butternut squash in the sauce summons up an almost Velveeta orange. Yet even if you could divorce yourself from cheesy expectations, the taste is a bit sour and odd.
Pad Thai proved more popular, with lots of crunch from peanuts, a fresh hint of lime (and another wedge to squeeze for full pucker), crisp cukes, and cilantro--all very tasty in a subtly different way. After reading the menu quickly, we expected mung bean sprouts, and it took several forkfuls to realize there were none. The menu, read more carefully, reveals the noodles are actually made from mung beans. In fact, several dishes had fewer apparent vegetables and fruits on the plate than you might expect, because every entree is basically made from plants. So quit overthinking, vive la difference, and enjoy.
Monday is "Sushi Night" at the Lunch Room. Since it serves no fish, raw or otherwise, creativity abounds. Many of the giant, two-inch-diameter rolls, which differ each week, are gorgeous sunbursts of color with oranges, greens, pickled red beets, and other veggies. The olive tapenade in the Ritzy roll is an interesting attempt to re-create the umami and the briny intensity that eel provides in traditional maki rolls, but it seemed oddly Mediterranean in the seaweed-wrapped setting. My favorite roll was the Bear Hug, which combined slightly crunchy "cashew sour cream" with avocado, sauteed portabella mushroom, scallions, and cucumber.
Tuesday is Taco Night, then comes Pizza Wednesdays. November brought two days of sold-out Thanksgiving un-turkey dinner feasts. Along with occasional Saturday "Jazz and Jambalaya" featuring live musical performances and a Thursday Indian Night that comes and goes, a lively stream of homegrown mini-occasions are celebrated here. The buoyancy can be contagious and may actually trace to a "room of our own" pride that grew from a founding funders' campaign to launch the restaurant, not to mention the sense of community that grew up around the Lunch Room's earlier incarnation at Mark's Carts.
So you could see the Lunch Room as a vegans' clubhouse with charter members--and the rest of us just riffraff-come-lately. But that's not really right. The atmosphere and food feel very welcoming to all comers. Omnivores may encounter a surprise or two, but it's as likely pleasant as not. Veganism can seem constraining in the abstract, but diners will likely experience more breadth than expected at the Lunch Room. Credit the resourceful approach to fresh ingredients, willingness to experiment, and readiness to have fun.
The Lunch Room
407 N. Fifth Ave. (Kerrytown)
Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Fri. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sat. 8 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Soup and salads $3-$9; sandwiches and entrees $7-$10; desserts $1.75-$4.
[Originally published in January, 2014.]
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