After the omnivorous delights of Chinatown, Sacred Chow (522 Hudson Street; 337-0863), an established mecca for West Village vegans, comes as a tonic. If there is a more thoughtful, nutritious, and -- here's the key -- flavorsome animal-free restaurant in New York, the Underground Gourmet is a Dutchman.
Sacred Chow is a takeout with tables. Its owner and philosopher, Cliff Preefer, dreams up his "thinking food" in order to make a nonviolent, inclusive, and surreptitiously political contribution to the gourmet world. So if you're biologically or ideologically intolerant of meat or wheat or gluten or dairy products or artificial sweeteners, you'll find this a particularly amenable place. But members of all food tribes will be well served by Sacred Chow and its warm and knowledgeable staff.
My seat is by the window, where, as I swallow a Mediterranean basil roll with grilled marinated tofu (the bean curd's savory answer to pain au chocolat; $1.75), I watch the pedigreed dogs that gambol along Hudson Street. Sometimes their exquisite owners come inside for food. In the morning, many make off with the best-selling soy-buttermilk biscuit ($1), or with a wheat-free muffin (in blueberry -- my favorite -- cranberry, banana, or apple; $2.50), which may or may not be sweetened with brown-rice syrup. Those in the know steer clear of the cut-price, day-old baked goods. Those really in the know splash some soy milk on the Omega-3 oatmeal ($2.50 to $4.50) and partake of an austere but peerless no-fat, no-sweetener dollop of oats and flax seeds.
Come lunchtime, choose from a buffet of more than a dozen options (usually priced from $6.75 to $8.50 a pound) eaten hot or cold according to taste. Regulars generally organize their meal around four or five (or, what the hell, six) cubes of the famous grilled marinated tofu, or around the near-mythic home-produced seitan ($13 a pound), which comes roasted. The tofu is firm, suffused with a perfectly judged marinade of olive oil, lemon juice, rosemary, garlic, and very fine soy sauce. The seitan is made in the ancient, labor-intensive way of the Buddhist monks: Whole wheat and water are added to yeast-free dough, and the compound is washed like a T-shirt until, abracadabra, the protein separates from the carbohydrates and a musclelike wheat residue appears. If you boil that, marinate it in ginger, mustard, and black pepper, and roast it, then you have -- if you're at Sacred Chow -- a springy, tender steaklet that eats like a cooked meat you've never tasted.
I fill out my plate with portions of glazed parsnip and onions (excellent: the parsnips retain their crunchiness and are not oversweet), a helping of subtle mushroom-miso-onion risotto, and some pearl pasta (i.e., Israeli couscous) with grilled portabello mushrooms and tomatoes. If I want a quick bite, the very fresh tofu burger ($6) does the trick.
Dessert is sweet. There's the toasted cashew brownie supreme (made with organic cane sugar; $2.50), topped off by a ganache of dark chocolate melted with vanilla extract and rice milk. Or the coconut cannoli cup ($1.75), a flower-shaped treat in which macaroon petals, made with coconut milk and brown-rice syrup, are drenched in dark-chocolate ganache bejeweled with ruby pomegranate seeds, toasted almonds, and walnuts.
Sacred Chow extends to drink too. There are smoothies ($3.50) and cold herbal teas ($1.50) with medicinal properties (and, some might say, flavors): sinus tea and ginger-tamarind tea and teas to dissolve muscle cramps, indigestion, stress, and other symptoms of the violent, animal-eating world.
Sacred Chow is open seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. All major credit cards.