Diner: Meatless Mission

Local restaurants spread the veggie vibe

David Wasinger

Mullane's Parkside Cafe's K.C. Salad (left) and Angel Hair Pasta with roasted roma tomato sauce and sweet pepper and eggplant relish

Years ago in the late '70s, I worked for a short time in a very popular vegetarian restaurant in Bloomington, Ind. By the time I arrived at The Tao, it was well established in this small college community and enjoyed a larger reputation as visitors to Indiana University sung its praises.

Dedication, passion and conviction guided the staff on its meatless mission to delight, inspire and educate customers. Lunch and dinner, five days a week, usually meant a full house of diners (many of them confirmed carnivores) enjoying the simplest soups, salads and sandwiches to more complex dinner specials. All of the desserts, which were my department, were made without refined sugars or hydrogenated fats and most without dairy products. The Tao, simply put, served delicious, healthy food without an ounce of animal flesh.

As the '80s unfolded and more Americans developed a heightened awareness of the benefits of meatless diets, restaurants across the country responded by making room on their menus for vegetarian dishes. Soon small, strictly vegetarian restaurants like the The Tao, Fo Fo The Bo (who remembers this Mount Lookout eatery?) and more recently New World Foods in Clifton could not sustain enough business. Instead, "vegetarian friendly" restaurants, delis and "natural" markets have become the norm.

In no way am I implying this as a bad thing.

Being a 30-year vegetarian myself, I enjoy the expanding consciousness and increased choices. My lament is for the idealistic nucleus of creative energy that a strict vegetarian restaurant generates — The Church of the Almighty Carrot thumping the Broccoli Bible — "We're enthusiastically going to change the world one flesh-eater at a time!"

But business is business, and even an idealistic fish has to swim in the shark-infested economic pool. As I made calls to restaurants and delis around town that list themselves as "vegetarian friendly," the content of the message was the same: "We can't afford to exclude the meat-eating public." We've circled back.

Only two hard-core (100 percent) vegetarian restaurants that I know of remain in the Cincinnati area: Ulysses Whole World Foods in Clifton Heights and the younger Manna Vegetarian Deli (whose former Hyde Park location has recently moved to new digs on Mount Lookout Square). Although Ulysses is temporarily closed, Manna is enjoying enough community support to have recently opened a second location downtown.

In the interest of spreading the veggie vibe, CityBeat plans to explore and review those restaurants that call themselves "vegetarian friendly" or "natural." This week we visited a neighborhood cafe/market in Anderson Township and a well-known downtown restaurant. If you have favorites you would like us to check out, drop us a note. And to the first two readers who can tell me what Fo Fo The Bo stood for — you'll be my guests for the next vegetarian-friendly review. — DC

Mullane's Parkside Cafe
My gal pal and I sit with squinted eyes at an outdoor table on the sidewalk of Mullane's. "Paris," my girlfriend sighs. "With the eyes squinted we could be in Paris."

"More like Chicago, maybe East Side in Manhattan," I respond. "Still, this feels like anywhere but Cincinnati."

The sidewalk cafe of Mullane's (723 Race St., Downtown, 513-381-1331) is unlike other dining spots in town: It's framed by the tree-lined Garfield Park and the large windows that provide a view into the warm woods and eclectic art of the cozy dining room. Wine bottles and a basket of baguettes on the counter add the Parisian touch, but it's Mullane's menu that furnishes the most bohemian quality.

Eighty percent of the menu is vegetarian: appetizers, small salads, large salads and entrées — lunch and dinner — simple, homestyle and good. We embellish upon our fantasy vacation as we munch on Vegetables with Curried Yogurt ($3.25), a plate of carrot and celery sticks, slices of yellow squash and mushrooms surrounding a bowl of sweet 'n tangy dip.

"Shoe shopping and the theater?'' asks my friend, "or maybe we can join a discussion group of Anais Nin's diaries." Even our server looks the part — black hair pulled back neatly, glasses that say "I'm-really-a-poet."

Six of the eight dinners are pasta- or rice-based with beans or vegetables, most with cheese, though it's optional on a couple for vegans. All entrées can be made with an addition of tofu and tempeh, and meat-eaters can add chicken breast, ham or smoked turkey sausage.

We chose the Spinach Saute ($8.45) with Tofu ($2.50) and Alouette Cream Sauce ($10.75) with vegetables — both of us selecting brown rice instead of pasta. Neither one of us could finish these tasty and satisfying meals, and our server graciously gave us paper boxes.

You can't live the café life without pastry and coffee, so a piece of Mullane's homemade Raspberry Peach Pie ($3.75), Almond Tea and Decaf coffee were perfect as we leaned forward, elbows on the table, laughing, deliberating, analyzing and debating the human condition and life's wonders late into the evening. — DC

Susan's Natural Foods
I "became vegetarian" when I was 16.

At first, my choices were strictly out of convenience: Dad had high cholesterol. Mom stopped cooking red meat and served chicken only occasionally. After a while, I realized I felt healthier eating this way than I did on my previous diet of burgers and LaRosa's meatball hoagies.

Since that time, I've discovered many others who, for one reason or another, are conscientious eaters — folks who are concerned about what they put into their bodies, and take the time to consider foods they deem as healthy. Some are non-meat eaters, some are completely vegan and avoid all animal products, and some just choose organic products when available. These folks — the conscientious foodies — are the group catered to by Susan's Natural Foods (8315 Beechmont Ave., Anderson Twp., 513-474-4900).

Inside the market on Beechmont Avenue, aisles were buzzing with a variety of shoppers on a recent weekday afternoon. A fortyish man was asking manager Peggy Johnson for advice on a supplement product; an older woman squeezed produce in the organic fruits area, and a young mother and daughter sat at the juice bar, enjoying a smoothie.

Although Susan's Natural World has been the health-food-store-trendsetter (with more than 10 years under her belt in this area), the juice bar and deli counter are fairly recent additions in the past couple of years.

The deli serves up primarily soups, sandwiches and salads. Although the menu is not completely vegetarian, the deli staff carefully avoids any cross-contamination of meat and non-meat products.

Sandwiches ($4.95) include Boca or veggie burger, Okara Burger (a "chickenlike" soy patty) served on a whole wheat bun, and the popular Vegetarian Sloppy Joe, made of Textured Vegetable Product (TVP) especially for Susan's by Gourmet Whole Foods. Amish Chicken Salad and Albacore Tuna Salad are options for meat-eaters.

Most of the bakery products are made in house by Lisa Burke of Naturally Yours. A posted list describes all ingredients, including unbleached white and whole wheat flour and turbinado sugar, etc.

Since it was late in the afternoon, the deli counter crowd had dwindled, allowing me to ogle the refrigerator case of salads and hummus. I ordered a deli tub portion of the delicious vegetarian sloppy joe (by the pound) to take home.

Lunches here are very laid-back and pleasant. The L-shaped counter looks out across a wall of windows that brighten the entire store. Susan's offers a healthy alternative to the pack of fast food restaurants along Beechmont Avenue, in a comfortable, light-filled room. — AM

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