1.03.2012

Haven for Hippies or Bastion of Big Hungries?

Last week’s post on Dinosaur BBQ got some serious traffic, which gets me thinking that maybe profiling some great New York landmarks is a good idea if I want new and different people to read Big Hungry Shelby. Which I do, so this past weekend, Big Hungry Jill and I hit the dusty trail to Ithaca to get some grub from the crunchiest of granolas: The Moosewood Restaurant.

Spawner of dozens of cookbooks and beloved by vegetarians the world over, Moosewood Restaurant has been an Ithacan stalwart since 1973 and a mecca for hippies, vegans and natural food-enthusiasts. I am none of those, mind you, but I have never, ever felt any less than satisfied with the cuisine here, and am usually completely enthused by the fresh, timeless atmosphere inside and the creative cuisine that is never boring and always unique.

The tricky thing about reviewing Moosewood for the blog is that their menu changes every day. They have some menu staples, like the rocking creamy spinach-basil house dressing, and the little plates you can order as starters, but the soups, sandwich and entrees change with what’s in season and what Moosewood’s imaginative chefs cook up on any given day.

This is Jill. She likes celery.

I really like to start my Moosewood meal off with the little individual small plates they offer: olives, bread and butter, feta cheese and artichokes. The olives, a mix of green and black, are at the same time buttery and mouth-tingling, as they are showered with red pepper flakes. The artichokes are exceptionally fresh and tender, with that great, creamy texture and flavor from a really good jarred variety. The feta is utterly spectacular – creamier and less salty than just about any I’ve had. The bread, from local Ithaca Bakery, is whole grain and nutty in texture and flavor while still being light and delicious for those who prefer white bread. Jill added in a little plate of marinated tofu, which of course I was skeptical about, but which turned out to be firm and surprisingly yummy. It was great as a base combined with a piece of the artichoke and some of the feta – a perfect bite. I wanted to eat that feta forever, unfortunately, before we were even close to done savoring these little plates of goodness, the waitress brought our salads. That really annoys me. Pacing, hippies! Pacing!

Our array of starter goodies

I got the aforementioned salad with the house dressing: a tangy, green emulsion of basil, spinach and buttermilk. Divine. Jill ordered the star of the whole show, a creamy gazpacho. This outstanding cold soup of yogurt, tomato, crunchy cucumbers and bell peppers is a must-have if you encounter it on the menu.

Lunchtime entrees available Saturday included macaroni and cheese, which I avoided since it couldn’t possibly top the Dinosaur version I outlined last week, a Grecian stew, and the two we chose: Hungarian torta and middle east platter. My Hungarian torta was a homerun: flakey phyllo dough surrounding eggs, mild cheeses, squash, mushrooms, red bell pepper and some nice bright herbs. This was earthy, just a touch spicy, and completely scrumptious. The steamed veggies alongside it were an afterthought, but the cauliflower was OK.

I actually haven’t figured out yet what was so damn Hungarian about this, but I liked it

Jill’s middle east platter was headlined with a few small tofu cakes laced with turmeric and cumin, very reminiscent of falafel. But here’s the thing: aren’t falafel already vegetarian? So why couldn’t these be made with chick peas? I don’t get it. Tofu-lover Jill was on cloud nine, and I do acquiesce that these were tasty, but I was mostly responding to the spice. The quinoa salad on the side was light, herby, but could have used a punch of lemon as far as I was concerned. Have you had quinoa? It’s like barley, couscous and rice got together in Haight-Ashbury and made a little love: this whole grain is good and good for you.

Get down tonight in the middle east

Moosewood is the kind of place to which people make pilgrimages. Like The French Laundry or Chez Panisse in California, this restaurant draws a very specific clientele from far and wide. I have a vegetarian friend, Sheri, who lives in Atlanta and is really keen on making the trip to Moosewood. Jill and I very much enjoyed our meal there, and graded it a 6.5 on the BHS scale. I simply had to take away points for the rushed feeling of the service, and also for the cramped tables-for-two. Every time a wait person stopped at a table on either side of us, her butt was almost on our table. I know demand is high, but some space would be nice, even on a busy Saturday.

I will continue to visit the Moosewood from time to time. It’s true, Ithaca has probably the best concentration of restaurants in New York save Manhattan, but Moosewood’s take on cuisine is different, in a good way. I’m no vegetarian, but the awesome dressing, inventive entrees and the vegan chocolate cake, which I didn’t even have room for on Saturday, will keep me coming back. My personality is big, my hunger is bigger!

Moosewood Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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