Diner: Love Letter

Vegetarian fare at Mullane's is both lively and savory

In this city, words like "tempeh" and "tofu" are rare sights on a menu. That's why I always experience a surge of vegetarian ecstasy every time I lay my eyes on the menu of Mullane's Parkside Cafe.

Tonight is no different. "Look!" I exclaim to my companion. "You can add tofu and tempeh to any entrée on the menu," I say blissfully, as if I've never seen this, even though I've been here many times.

"That's great," he concedes, humoring me. Meanwhile, he's thrilled because you can also add chicken breast, ham or smoked turkey sausage to any of the vegetarian entrées.

The place is packed at 7 o'clock on a Thursday night. The compact dining room, with its closely packed tables and wine bottles stacked on the back counter, brings to mind a cozy trattoria in West Greenwich Village. Since the restaurant is so busy, we quickly forgive our waiter who takes longer than usual to come to the table.

Besides, when he arrives, he has a basket of fluffy, fresh-baked French and wheat bread. We order two drinks — a Gabianno Chianti ($3.25) and a Grolsch ($2.50) — and charge ahead with an appetizer.

We're torn between the Vegetables with Curried Yogurt ($2.75) and the Three Cheese Fruit & Nut Plate ($5.25). We ask the waiter which is the most popular item and which is his personal favorite of all the choices. He chooses the former, and I miraculously win.

Despite the crowd, we somehow have landed a great table in front of the wall-sized window facing Race Street. I gaze at passers-by, and pity them for not being inside the restaurant.

"This review is going to be biased, isn't it?" my companion asks.

"Well, now, all reviews are biased, right?" I retort. "I'll try to find something wrong."

We quickly end our silly debate, content to gaze lovingly at one another, once our Vegetables with Curried Yogurt arrives. The yogurt is brisk and savory. Rich with curry and splashed with lemon, the flavor fits the cool, spring evening. Vegetables I normally eat cooked — mushrooms, zucchini, summer squash and broccoli — I actually enjoy in all their raw glory, as long as they're drenched in yogurt.

When our waiter returns to make sure everything is all right, I tell him how wonderful the curry is, and we order. At first, my friend wants to order the Ribeye Steak ($11.25), one of the only strictly meat dishes on the menu, besides the Hamburger Through the Garden ($4.25) and the Ham ($3.75) and Turkey ($3.50) sandwiches. But he decides instead to participate in the vegetarian scene.

"I'll have the special, the Ginger Shiitake," he says (it's $11.95). I'm proud to be with him. Again, I ask our wise waiter what he suggests.

He suggests the Brie Pesto Cream Sauce ($10.25). Although I'm leery of the fat factor, alas, it was recommended, so I have to order it. Nevermind the more ascetic choices of Red Beans & Rice ($6) or Spinach Sauté ($7.45) with zucchini, yellow squash, feta and garlic that I otherwise would have ordered. It's my job as a restaurant reviewer to consume heavy cream sauce, for the good and education of the public.

By the time our entrées arrive, we've had plenty of time to finish our appetizers. It's perfect timing. My partner's Ginger Shiitake stir-fry is especially remarkable. Each tender mushroom, water chestnut and broccoli spear bursts with the peppery buzz of ginger, salty soy sauce and nutty sesame oil. The clean spring taste of fresh cilantro sprigs lightly accents the mix.

Though my Brie Pesto Cream Sauce with linguine isn't as full-flavored, it is certainly deeply rich. It's hard not to feel like a queen of some sort, while devouring warm, gentle brie, buttery pecans, cream and the anise-flavor of fresh basil. Bitter deep green spinach leaves sharpen the creaminess.

Dare we indulge in dessert? Of course. After all, we have a responsibility. The Chocolate Truffle Cake ($3.75)? Isn't that what the majority would choose? Well then, we must order it. It goes without saying that the lightly sweet, chocolate-whipped creation is fairly amazing.

Since I promised my companion I'd find something wrong with Mullane's, I feel I should warn everyone about the brie. The chunks of brie in the Brie Pesto Cream Sauce retained their rinds. Some people don't care for brie rind. There: I found something wrong. That said, you should have a lively, savory time at Mullane's. But get there early! ©

Mullane's Parkside Cafe

Go: 723 Race St., Downtown

Call: 381-1331

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-midnight Friday; 5 p.m.-midnight Saturday. Closed Sunday.

Prices: Moderate. Half orders are available for two-thirds of the regular entrée price.

Payment: Cash. No credit cards accepted.

Vegetarian Friendliness: They might as well kiss all vegetarians at the door.

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