Thursday, August 21, 2014

Beans and Barley Market & Café

Beans and Barley Market & Café
1901 East North Avenue, Milwaukee, WI 53202
QISA (4.5,4,4,4); $7-11; Vegetarian-Friendly

Milwaukee, all is forgiven. I forgive your poor signage, your crazy left side of the road on-ramps, your urban sprawl, and your ubiquitous road construction. I even forgive you for Miller beer, possibly the leading counter argument against American exceptionalism. I forgive it all because you have the East Side, the cultural trend-setting neighborhood north of downtown. And not only do you have the East Side, you have Beans and Barley. And not only do you have Beans and Barley, you have Beans and Barley’s key lime pie. But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself.

Beans and Barley started as a neighborhood health food store and has built itself up to a moderate-sized specialty store and an exceptional vegetarian-friendly restaurant. The food is excellent, and the atmosphere is comfortable, contemporary without feeling pretentious. The clientele trended toward the twenty-something set, but the ages ranged up to fifties and sixties, making me feel less conspicuous, and less like I was crashing a college hangout.

I started my meal with a bowl of vegetarian chili, a spicy, hearty mix of red beans, bulgur wheat, tomatoes, onions, celery, and peppers. If you will excuse the hyperbole, it was the best chili I’ve had in a long time, and that includes my own. For my entrée, I ordered the portabella enchilada from the specials menu. The enchilada itself was stuffed with portabella mushrooms, beans, and spinach, and it was served in a small casserole on the plate. The sides to the meal were elegantly rendered. The long-grain rice was cooked with cilantro and peppers to give it a tiny hint of heat, and the corn and cooked carrots were cooked to perfection, letting their natural flavors come through. Beans and Barley serves many Wisconsin microbrewery beers, and I opted for the New Glarus Two Women, an incredibly well balanced beer that complemented the meal.

Too often, natural food restaurants excel when it comes to savory dishes, and tank when it comes to desserts. So, naturally I had to test this theory with a piece of key lime pie. Full disclosure, I LOVE key lime pie. Therefore, I take it personally when key lime pie is not done well.

This was done well. This was pure decadence, a heavenly balance of sweet and tart wrapped in a blanket of comfort and love. And yes, to answer your snarky questions, I DID need to take a moment.

I definitely plan to come back to Beans and Barley the next time I pass through Milwaukee. Maybe next time I will try the tofu burger instead of the spicy enchilada. Maybe instead of the chili, I’ll try out the artichoke parmesan dip with French bread. Maybe instead of a beer, I’ll order the jasmine pearl tea. But chances are pretty good that I’ll order the key lime pie again. Because, yeah.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

McFoster's Natural Kind

McFoster’s Natural Kind
302 S 38th St, Omaha, NE, 68131
QISA(3322), $7-13, Vegetarian-Friendly

Unfortunately, I walked into McFoster’s Natural Kind already biased against the establishment. To begin with, the Website has been suspended, which in today’s day and age is inexcusable. Second, when I called to check their hours, the gentleman who answered the phone informed me in a bored voice that they were typically open till 10pm, but since no one was there, they were thinking of closing early. This is not what you want to hear about a restaurant you are about to patronize.

Whereas I could excuse the run-down, funky interior, and mediocre service, I simply could not excuse the menu that read, “McFoster’s is a vegetarian restaurant that also serves seafood and chicken dishes.” No. Then it’s not a vegetarian restaurant. “Schlomo’s is a kosher restaurant that also serves pork and cheeseburgers.” See? It’s wrong. You either are or are not kosher. You either are or are not vegetarian.

To be fair, their Facebook page describes McFoster’s as a, “primarily vegetarian restaurant that also serves seafood and chicken dishes.” But this is a little too little, a little too late. The damage to the image has already been done.

For a vegan traveller in Omaha, McFoster’s might seem like a godsend. Certainly the organic, locally-sourced food ethic is very attractive. However, the quality of the food is inconsistent. I loved the tempura-style sweet potato fries with banana ketchup (think tomato ketchup sweetened with banana), but I was lukewarm to the Portabella Mushroom Dinner, “massaged with raw garlic, spices, and vegan butter, then charbroiled under tender; Served on a bed of organic basmati rice with a vast array of veggies sautéed with virgin olive oil, garlic, fresh basil, and spices. Vegan basil and organic cashew butter pesto on the side.” It sounded delightful, particularly since I love portabella mushrooms. In reality, the portabella was half size, only about two inches in diameter, and the supposed basmati rice was short grain brown rice.

The service, as I mentioned earlier, was mediocre at best. The waiter was a friendly sort, but he did not exude eagerness or confidence. And he forgot to bring me my smoothie.

It certainly is a shame. We need more restaurants like McFoster’s Natural Kind with locally sourced, organic vegetarian and vegan options. But maybe we don’t need McFoster’s itself.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Lalibela Ethiopian Cuisine of Omaha

Lalibela Ethiopian Cuisine of Omaha
4422 Cass St, Omaha, NE, 68131
QISA (2.5, 3, 3.5, 3) $11-13, Vegetarian-Possible

About 30 years ago, my mother traveled to Omaha, Nebraska for a conference. “How was it?” I asked her. She made a face. “It was the dullest place I’ve ever visited. There is NOTHING to do there. I asked people what they do for fun. They said they go to the stockyards.”

Thankfully, Omaha has changed in 30 years.

According to the Omaha Tourism Board site, Omaha is one of the nation’s premiere hot spots for the indie music scene. I was only in town for a couple days, so I didn’t get to sample any of the local folk, jazz, blues, or pop, but I did get a feeling for the town while driving around. Omaha is a thoroughly pleasant metropolis that feels like a fully manageable Midwest town that is slowly in the process of filling itself up with people. In short, I like it.

Despite the glut of hamburger and steak joints, the burg does have its share of vegetarian-friendly restaurants. Granted none of them stood out as being to the level of Indianapolis (my home town and twice Omaha’s size), but for the stranded traveler, there is much more to find that the salad bar at Anthony’s Steak House.

For example, Lalibela is one of two Ethiopian restaurants in the center of Omaha. Lalibela rates itself as only vegetarian-possible because only one of the 12 entries is vegetarian, but if you are looking for a moderately-decent Ethiopian meal in Nebraska, you should consider this stop. Much of the meal is quite good. The injera (Ethiopian bread) has just the right tang and sponginess. The red lentils in the center of the plate have just the right level of spice and moistness. Unfortunately, much of the meal is simply mediocre. The split peas and cooked greens were a bit too dry and the green salad tasted just like your standard ‘Merican green salad. The Ethiopian spiced tea tasted exactly like Constant Comment with lots of sugar. Oh, and for the uninitiated, the pile of pale green chutney is not cole slaw. It’s a rather potent hot sauce. You have been warned.

The décor of the restaurant can only be described as quaintly trying. The restaurant is small but clean, and it is decorated with posters from Ethiopia. Granted the Price is Right on the overhead TV and the light jazz over the speakers certainly do not add an air of authenticity. Furthermore, although the owner and chef hiding in the back is Ethiopian, the waitress was clearly born and bred in Nebraska. However, she was polite, attentive, and willing to train any new patron on the ins and outs of Ethiopian food, particularly how you eat everything with your hands.

Lalibela is not nearly as good as my favorite Ethiopian restaurant in Indianapolis (to be profiled at a later date), but for a small exotic restaurant in the middle of steak country, you could certainly do worse. I know that 30 years ago, my mother would have loved it.