Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Lunch Room

The Lunch Room
407 N. 5th Avenue, Ann Arbor, MI 48104
QISA (4, 3.5, 3.5, 3), $7-10, Vegan

The Lunch Room in Ann Arbor is a small, intimate vegan eatery with a rapid turnover vibe befitting its college appeal. The food is well prepared and tasty, which is a good thing because obviously very little time was wasted on décor. In fact, other than the big jars of spices behind the lunch counter itself, the only decorations that I could see were cheap, store-bought Halloween cut outs on the windows and a decorative border around the ceiling made of blue-tipped metal quills. I am not sure what the decorators were going for, but it looked like they had sewn together the pelts of many paint-dipped porcupines.

Based on my single visit, the restaurant primarily draws a young female crowd, most of them pulled straight out of the 60s through a rip in the space time continuum. The party of four next to me comprised three attractive young ladies in native garb, and a mother who looked like she was actively accepting their lifestyles. The “earthiest” of this group, a pretty blonde woman in macramé and earth tones, was apparently eschewing the regressive confines of the spoken word and was communicating in a limited set of signs that seemed to indicate “love,” “look at that,” and “cell phone.”

But then there is the food. I really enjoyed the food. I ordered a tofu banh mi sandwich with a side of chili. The banh mi was a thick slab of tofu marinated and baked to a perfect texture and flavor, covered with carrots and cilantro, and served on hearty, chewy artisan bread. The chili was thick and busy with a moderate amount of heat. Loaded with kidney beans and lentils and complemented with tomato and onion, the chili had a wonderful “meaty” quality without the cheat of processed meat analogs.

When I go back, and I undoubtedly will, I will have to try the Tuck and Roll Burrito with cumin black beans, corn, cumin-lime rice, avocado, cashew sour cream, and fresh pico de gallo. Or perhaps I will come for the Sunday brunch and try the biscuit “sausage” and gravy or maybe the breakfast burrito with housemade seitan chorizo. Or maybe I’ll ask about the Flying Spaghetti Monster sushi roll mentioned on their Twitter feed. After all, what’s vegan food without a political statement?

However, I will have to time my next visit so that it does not follow a business meeting. I definitely need to lose the tie and suit if I want to blend in with the locals. I could be wrong, but I think the pretty blonde hippie was signing to her friends, “Check out Gordon Gecko.”

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Trumpet Blossom

Trumpet Blossom
310 E. Prentiss St., Iowa City, IA 52240
QISA (4, 4, 3.5, 4), $8-$18, Vegan

Way too often a restaurant aims for one adjective only to take additional unwanted modifiers. One might go for “fancy” and become “snooty” and “pretentious”. Another might go for “homey” and take on “old” and “worn”. Yet another might go for “comfort” and end up with “greasy” and “heart attack.”

When a restaurant squarely hits its target, you have to pay it respect. Trumpet Blossom goes for “rustic” and hits it dead on.

Everything about Trumpet Blossom speaks “rustic,” from the wooden benches and chairs to the hanging 19th century wooden spoons and gourds, antique cabinets, paisley quilted cloth napkins, and beverages in Ball jars. Roy Orbison crooning over the loudspeaker cinched the image for me.

“Sweet dream baby, how long must I dream?”

Trumpet Blossom serves a wide variety of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, from specialty cocktails like the Kombucha Gin & Tonic to smoothies and coffee drinks. I ordered the Cobra Verde, a citrus, ginger, and green coffee energy drink made by Wake Up Iowa City, a local organic coffee company. The beverage was bright and citrusy with a slight ginseng earthiness. It was an acquired taste to be sure, but I enjoyed its bright notes. I likely wouldn’t drink a Cobra Verde by itself, but it was an excellent accompaniment to the meal.

The soup of the day was a mushroom cauliflower rice soup that was hearty with plenty of umami flavor and made me feel like a child at home on a cold fall day. It was exactly the kind of soup you imagined your mother making for you…if only your mother had made homemade vegan soups. It was rustic plain and simple.

“Crying, over you. Crying, over you.”

The house red bean and oat veggie burger was served on grilled toast, which gave the sandwich a wonderful hearty crunch that balanced the softness of the burger. The burger was topped by a maple-bourbon BBQ aioli, caramelized onion, greens, and a pickled veggie slaw. The flavor of pickle inherent in most of the dishes brought to mind sunlight streaming through the windows, picnic baskets, and weekend mornings. In other words, it spoke of all things rustic.

“I’m going back some day, come what may to Blue Bayou.”

The spiced bread pudding I had for dessert was not the best bread pudding I have ever had, but it was very good and it was certainly original, tasting somewhere between a standard bread pudding and a spiced quick bread. It rounded out the, dare I say it, “rusticness” of the entire experience.

That Trumpet Blossom is an organic vegan restaurant may seem incongruous with its old-fashioned image. Yet, what is more in touch with our rustic roots and historic sensibilities than locally sourced vegetables free from modern pesticides?

I am eager to get back there to try out some of their other creative dishes, such as pizza with tofu-cheese and sausage style seitan, tempeh reubens, Iowa polenta cakes with maple-bourbon BBQ sauce, and roasted garlic tofu kabobs with ginger peanut sauce. With luck, I’ll get there on one of their live music nights. Or maybe, I’ll be there on a quiet weekday afternoon, warming myself from the wintry snow outside. Either way, it will undoubtedly feel like a big bowl of home.

Plus tofu.

Hard Times Cafe

Hard Times Café
1821 Riverside Avenue, Minneapolis, MN 55454
QISA (4,4,3,3.5), $5-10, Vegetarian

There is something exciting about discovering Hard Times Café, like you’ve stumbled upon a secret that you alternatively want to share with the world and keep close to the vest. According to Wikipedia, Hard Times is located in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis and is best known for its punk and hippie ideology, gritty ambience, large selection of vegetarian/vegan food, and late hours, being open 22 hours a day.

The restaurant lacks all vestiges of pretention. My best description of the place is “Urban Homeless Chic," and I mean that in the best possible way.

The restaurant lacks all pretention and draws a mix of students, professionals, and scruffy looking men with long beards who may or may not be students or professionals. The “gritty ambience” includes beat up benches covered with tape under clean and smooth wooden tables. Local artwork covers the walls; the artist de la semaine was apparently a photographer specializing in candid portraits of street performers. A corner of the restaurant is dedicated to books and board games, which you can play while you listen to new agey music or Styx belting out “Come Sail Away.”

The menu is an eclectic mix of vegetarian and vegan dishes, complemented by a variety of teas, tisanes, coffee drinks, and sodas (including Jolt Cola and Reed’s Extra Ginger Beer). The prices are very reasonable, especially for the generous portions they give you.

I ordered the tempeh jambalaya soup, seitan gyros plate, and a cup of jasmine tea. The soup was a hearty, chunky mix of kidney beans, onion, bell pepper, and tomato, along with small pieces of tempeh that were almost an afterthought to add a complete protein. The jambalaya balanced a little bit of heat with a little bit of sweet to make a very flavorful soup.

The seitan gyros plate included large pieces of delicately spiced seitan cooked to chewy perfection, wrapped in a giant soft pita with lettuce, tomato, cucumber, and red onion. Whereas the seitan itself had a very mild flavor, the accompanying tahini on the side was very garlicky, giving it a very strong tang.

I ended the meal with a vegan rice crispy bar. The crispies were anything but, but the whole bar was coated with so much chocolate that you almost didn’t mind the lack of crunch.

Be warned: the restaurant only accepts cash. Also be warned: the Cedar-Riverside is definitely NOT the ritzy side of town. However, the place obviously has a loyal clientele that love it for it’s food, low prices, and “gritty ambience”. Once you discover Hard Times Café, you may find it to be an addictive habit.