"Vegetarian food in Seattle? That's going to be easy."
Such was the common response I received upon telling East Coasters about my plan to dig into Seattle's vegetarian food. In fact, I had no idea just how easy it was going to be. I wound up never having a bad meal in the Emerald City.
The all-vegan Chaco Canyon Organic Cafe was a popular recommendation and perfect for a quick lunch. The veggie burger was touted as the city's best by Seattle Weekly and it didn't disappoint. A hefty lentil patty had a nice exterior crust and was nestled in a pillowy bun with cucumbers, marinated onions, sprouts and a tangy vegan rif on thousand island. The accompanying lemony quinoa taboulleh was a good foil for the substantial burger.
Entirely vegetarian Café Flora was also oft-recommended and was voted the Seattle Magazine reader's choice for best vegetarian. Try to snag a seat in the sun room -- flanked by bamboo and anchored by a bubbling fountain -- for a taste of the outdoors even in the fickle weather of the Pacific Northwest.
When the restaurant first fired up its grills in 1991, according to owner Nat Stratton-Clarke, locals had no idea what a vegetarian restaurant was all about: Some even assumed that chicken or fish would be on the menu. Since then, he says, the vegetarian scene has grown exponentially.
Twenty years, a cookbook and numerous accolades later, Café Flora has earned national appeal. According to Stratton-Clarke, the restaurant's Portobello Wellington, made with portobellos, mushroom-nut pate and Madeira wine sauce, has become a popular meat-free substitute for the Thanksgiving turkey. "We'll get calls from all over the country asking for advice on how to prepare it," he says. (The recipe is available in Café Flora's cookbook.)
Think of it as the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line for vegetarians.
It's All About The Produce
My Seattle host Maura helped keep me on the vegetarian track with brunch at trendy Toulouse Petit. At the New Orleans-inspired eatery, a big bowl of creamy cauliflower soup with truffle oil and horseradish and a salad of golden beets and haricots verts were light, fresh and satisfying on a sunny Seattle morning. The dish wouldn't be my last encounter with the root vegetable, which sprouted up on almost every menu I saw.
Maura, who has lived in Seattle for two years, isn't a vegetarian, but tends towards meatless entrees that she says are readily available around town. It's the abundance and quality of local produce that makes such choices easy, she says. After moving here, she's even discovered a new taste for veggies like beets or the oft-hated Brussels sprouts, which I once spied her enjoying out of the corner of my eye.
Indeed the awesome produce of the Pacific Northwest was often credited by both locals and restaurateurs alike as a major driver of local vegetarianism. Plus, as Maura points out, in these parts they're trying to "work on their fitness." Can't do that on a diet of burgers and nuggets.
Vegetarian restaurant Carmelita made it easy for diners to know exactly what's in season by including a list on its menu: apples, beets, chanterelles, corn, eggplant, huckleberries, greens, green onions, lobster mushrooms, peaches, peppers, porcinis, shallots, squash and tomatoes. Many menus also included a list of their local purveyors.
Their bounty was put to good use in Carmelita's razor-thin carpaccio of beets with mache and citrus dressed in a pomegranate vinaigrette and a pizza topped with a cannellini and rosemary spread, blue potato "coins," greens and hazelnuts. A rich chocolate cake was accompanied by huckleberry compote for dessert.
Mainstream and Meat Free
Like Toulouse Petit, many of my dining stops were at non-vegetarian restaurants. One of these, Emmer & Rye, served the best meal of my trip.
From its restaurant week menu, a tart tomato soup was unexpectedly rich but lightened by a dollop of leek puree. An entrée consisting of an emmer grain cake piled high with chewy-but-not-rubbery chanterelles and al-dente greens knocked it out of the park. And, a rosemary shortbread topped with nectarine curd and fresh nectarines was the perfect combination of savory and sweet.
Fans of the blog Orangette might be familiar with the pizza restaurant Delancey, which lives up to the high expectations of a food-blogger and her husband. Thin-crust pizza came out crisp and blistered with a bit of oven char. It was the perfect thickness to stand up to a layer of crimini mushrooms plus mozzarella, local Walla Walla onions and thyme. A white pizza with mozzarella, house-made ricotta, grana cheese and roasted figs on top also satisfied.
Until We Meet Again, Seattle
I've been back in New York for fewer than 24 hours and I'm already having a craving for another of Mighty-O's moist and cakey vegan donuts. If Duncan Hines and Dunkin Donuts had a lovechild, they'd be it.
Clearly my experience in Seattle left me hungry for more, and I still have a lengthy list of places to try on my next trip: vegetarian Plum Bistro for quinoa sloppy Joes, Nook for vegetarian biscuits and gravy, and Northwest Tofu Inc. for homemade tofu that would apparently make anyone in NYC's Chinatown jealous.
Here's a look at these and even more of Seattle's awesome veggie goodies: