In spring, the farmer’s markets begin to bloom and a New Yorker’s thoughts turn to eating vegetables. Vegetarian restaurants, sadly, may not be the most satisfying option. Most of them seem less interested in leafy greens than in mock meat, that unfortunate contrivance that succeeds only in reminding us of what we’re missing. There are certain cuisines – Indian in particular – that lend themselves exquisitely to meatless meals. But in New York, delicious vegetables of all ethnicities can be had wherever a truly skilled chef is in residence, someone who values ingredients for what they are instead of what they aren’t. We’ve selected our favorite places for a veggie fix, from an exalted temple of fine dining to an extremely unorthodox (kosher) pizzeria.
A full 25 percent of the menu at Café Boulud (20 East 76th Street; 772-2600) is devoted to le potager, or the vegetable garden – proof that Daniel Boulud is as much gatherer as hunter. Unlike other restaurants of its caliber, Café Boulud doesn’t offer a separate vegetarian tasting dinner and then make everyone at the table order it. Here, you can mix and match or go strictly veggie. And there are choices, which recently included a creamy curried-cauliflower purée flecked with Gala apples; a slivered-beet-and-goat-cheese salad slick with pistachio dressing; and cocotte, a casserole of artichokes and assorted tubers in a pungent, luxuriant sauce meant to be sopped up with focaccia. The meal’s masterpiece was a dish that has heretofore been the province of meat-eaters only: an earthy, soul-satisfying cassoulet, with flavorful cannellini beans and root vegetables replacing the standard sausage-and-duck confit. With great ceremony, the waiter cracks the crispy parsley-and-garlic-infused bread-crumb crust to ladle out your portion, releasing steaming vapors redolent of sage and thyme. Finish with le potager’s cooling pineapple soup or a black-currant-poached pear.
Estiatorio Milos (125 West 55th Street; 245-7400) is a dramatic Greek seafood restaurant with soaring ceilings, cast-concrete walls, an open kitchen, and carefully positioned spotlights that cast theatrical beams down onto the elements that have made the place a success: raw fish and raw vegetables. Owner Costas Spiliadis applies the same exacting standards to both. They must be fresh, they must be flavorful, and they must be tampered with as little as possible. Like the pompano and the loup de mer, Milos’s mostly organic vegetables are grilled and dressed as simply as possible with lemon juice, olive oil, and herbs. There’s a freestanding salad station, where bowls of perfect vine-ripened tomatoes line up alongside deep-purple eggplants, crimson peppers, and smooth-skinned melons. It’s easy to compose a dinner of vegetables here, where the art of the Greek appetizer is raised to a level far surpassing the spanakopita-and-dolmades norm. The first sign of greener pastures is the sprigs of fresh oregano the waiter snips into your olive oil. The next is the thick slices of perfectly toasted country bread you get in place of pita. Go easy on the dunking – you’ll need bread to scoop up the quartet of Greek spreads (trio, if you exclude the amazingly unfishy, caper-strewn taramasalata), far richer and smoother than any you’ve experienced. Feta cheese blended with jalapeño and red pepper (ktipiti), a garlicky tsatsiki, and a skordalia purée of almonds, garlic, and oil are addictive. As is the earthy fava purée and the Milos special, a small mound of tsatsiki buried beneath paper-thin, ethereally light fried zucchini and eggplant chips. The char-grilled red and yellow peppers are succulent, seasoned with capers and herbs. But don’t overlook the pristine, flavorful salads, especially the sliced tomatoes beneath two wedges of salty feta and crunchy slivers of onion and peppers. The lavish fruit plate combines mangoes, pineapple, and Cavaillon melon. Or sample the hyperrich, tangy sweetness of thick homemade yogurt under a viscous layer of honey and raisins.
Having trashed vegan restaurants, we have a confession to make: The best Chinese vegetables we encountered come from Tiengarden (170 Allen Street; 388-1364), a tiny vegan kitchen on the Lower East Side. You’d think any Chinese restaurant would be a shoo-in for stellar vegetables, but in fact, the reverse is true: Buried in gloppy, greasy sauce, most takeout Chinese vegetables – overcooked snow peas indistinguishable from carrots indistinguishable from broccoli – taste either like garlic or like nothing at all. The seventeen-seat Tiengarden is a cherished exception, despite lackluster décor consisting largely of hippie-dippie sentiments like ONLY WHEN WE ACHIEVER HARMONY WITHIN OURSELVES CAN THE ENVIRONMENT THEN ACHIEVE THE SAME. Tiengarden incorporates tofu and seitan, but it also, commendably, highlights vegetables in all their deliciously distinct glory, which is why the panfried dumplings are so tasty. (You taste greens, not grease.) Everything is fresh and cooked to order, which means longer waits than at your corner Empire Whatever. But the careful attention to mustard greens, bok choy, even the cold sesame noodles reveals a real love of plant life. Try the mixed rice, a nutty blend of red, brown, and wild varieties.
Many a vegetarian subsists on pasta and pizza, but these dishes rarely are presented in as varied and vegetarian-friendly a manner as at Cafe Viva (2578 Broadway, near 97th Street; 663-8482), an Upper West Side kosher vegetarian pizzeria. (An East Village branch, at 179 Second Avenue, has a slightly less expansive menu.) Looks are deceiving: The grungy storefront offers 25 creative versions, from quasi-traditional (goat cheese, grilled veggies, and mozzarella) to outré, like “Il Fiore” (grilled eggplant, onions, roasted peppers, garlic, rosemary, soy cheese, and organic tomato sauce on a wheat-free spelt crust). Salads are impeccably fresh and generous; pastas, ranging from corn spaghetti to artichoke angel hair, are cooked with grilled vegetables and well seasoned, if at times a tad too improvisational.
If the choices overwhelm at Viva, Italian-food lovers always have Mugsy’s Chow Chow in the East Village (31 Second Avenue; 460-9171), provided they arrive early enough to snag one of the twenty or so sought-after seats. The menu, which changes nightly according to available ingredients and the whims of chef Jimmy Carbone, eschews meat; shellfish show up as appetizers and in only one or two entrées. The bulk of the tiny menu is devoted to well-dressed salads (warm goat cheese and roasted red pepper with apples and walnuts, portobello crostini with grilled pears) and hearty homemade pastas (fettuccine with Gorgonzola sauce, gnocchi with tomato and basil). The toasted spaghetti, a lusty bowl of oven-crisped strands baked with pine nuts, spinach, and red peppers, is a favorite, but it must be hell on the dishwasher, who scrubs and rinses in a sink behind the bar, surrounded by thrift-shop lamps and tchotchkes. Notoriously press-shy, the couple who run this place don’t like too much business; the mismatched chairs barely accommodate their regular clientele. Asked to describe the menu, a woman who answers the phone gracefully declines. “I’m going to hang up now,” she says. “We don’t believe in that.”
There’s good news and bad news about the recent burst of new Indian restaurants. More kitchens mean more potato-stuffed dosai and chana masala for all of us, but it also means there’s very little to distinguish one place from the next. That isn’t a problem at Tiffin (18 Murray Street; 791-3510), a brand-new spot in lower Manhattan with impressive credentials. Co-owner Kumi Kalantri has a track record; his minuscule Thali, a closet of a West Village restaurant, draws a loyal clientele with its daily changing fixed-plate vegetarian meal. At Tiffin, three times the size and much more atmospheric, he expands on that theme. In India, a tiffin is a vertical lunchbox made of stainless-steel compartments that stack one on top of another; here, Kumi’s four cooks, each born in a different part of the subcontinent, fill them with vegetable curries and stews that vary each day to reflect the cooking style of a specific Indian region – Gujarati on Thursday, Goan on Saturday, et cetera. At night, after the Wall Streeters have deserted the neighborhood, the quick-lunch tiffins are replaced by a more leisurely prix fixe menu that is just as geographically diverse. Greaseless samosas stuffed with feta and pomegranates are almost weightless. Khandvi, a hand-rolled chickpea pasta in a yogurt sauce, gets a powerful kick from mustard seeds and chilies. Sindhi sai bhaji, flavored with fenugreek and dill, is a rich, subtly spiced take on creamed spinach. And the undhiya, Gujarat’s classic stew, combines plantains, jackfruit, lotus root, potato, and eggplant in a sauce brought to piquant life by curry leaves and red chilies. In May, Kumi will inaugurate a Sunday series of cooking classes for those intrepid eaters who want to learn how to navigate the Indian spice rack. “Out of a billion people in India,” he says, “800 million are vegetarians.” If there were more restaurants like Tiffin, the percentage here might be the same.