A few weeks ago, Curt and I were preparing for his brother Timmy (Tim, for those who met him as a grownup) to visit New York. Timmy recently told Curt that he was excited to come up to NYC, because he was excited to check out all the vegan restaurants. Wha?
The last time Curt saw Timmy was in October 2012. Timmy lives in a log cabin in the mountains outside of Knoxville. The log cabin has a wood stove for heating – when Timmy was in our apartment, he said it was odd for him that the heat was distributed throughout the house (i.e. that the temperature was consistent, and not freezing once you moved away from the kitchen).
When Curt went to visit Timmy, it was autumn, and hadn’t turned too cold yet. He dug sweet potatoes out of a community garden for dinner one night. He chopped wood for the nightly bonfire. He jammed on a washboard while Timmy played banjo. They kayaked up the river to a barbecue shack for lunch.
At the time, it seems, the food at Timmy’s house was vegan, though Curt didn’t notice. He thought, like most single guys in their mid-20s, that Timmy just didn’t keep that much food at his house. Timmy says that he started making the full transition to veganism about 3 months ago.
Curt and I challenged ourselves to find vegan restaurants for Timmy’s visit. Timmy was so excited to know that there was a plethora of vegan restaurants in NYC, and we like to be good hosts. Initially I was frustrated with my options: the sprout-seitan-tofu-tempeh combination with Asian flavors seemed boring, overworked, trying too hard to approximate the “real” thing. The restaurant I genuinely wanted to try is one of the hardest reservations to get right now – Dirt Candy, a restaurant that was praised fairly recently in the New York Times by Pete Wells, the current chief restaurant critic. The thing that I love about Dirt Candy’s concept is that they try to make vegetables the star, not fake meat-oriented dishes with protein substitutes. But as I said, it’s hard to get in. A quick test on opentable showed me that the next available reservation was at the end of April.
For the sake of length, I will be posting different entries for each restaurant. Enjoy!
1621 Lexington Ave (corner of 102nd St.)
Curt and I pass this restaurant all the time. It’s 4 blocks from our apartment, yet it’s the opposite way (and up a steep hill) from our subway stop on 103rd Street. We pass it when we’re walking down to 86th Street to do our errands. A friend of mine who’s a yoga teacher, writer, and vegan, told me about Moustache Pitza, when we tried to make plans to go to dinner. She said that as a vegan, it’s good that she likes the Middle Eastern flavor profile, as their traditional dishes also happen to be vegan. This is why you see vegans flocking to falafel.
When we were starving on Saturday afternoon, and wanted to get something close by, we opted for Moustache Pitza. The exterior leaves something to be desired: for the first 4 years that I lived in the neighborhood, I thought it was a barber shop (moustache, you know). The signage is drab, and though there are windows on two sides of the exterior (the advantage of being a corner building), you can’t really see inside unless you get close.
But once we entered, we were greeted by the lovely waitress/hostess. The dining room is outfitted with furniture that evokes an old cafe – seats with faded velvet covering, weathered wooden floors. A small open kitchen with a wood burning oven, as I believe would be requisite for making pita and pitza. The place is warm in many ways (I don’t know how they deal with the oven in the summer!), but the best way is through the food.
We started with Tabouleh. When I get this dish at Upper East Side delis, the parsley has been ground to almost a pesto consistency. Here, the parsley was hand cut by chiffonade. I was impressed with this initially. However, as I continued eating it and talking (yeah, yeah, don’t talk with your mouth full), I almost choked on a piece going down. It was a little dry, although the flavor was good. Curt was surprised with the dish: he said he’d never eaten a dish where parsley was the main ingredient. I told him he was wrong; there was a parsley salad served with the roasted bone marrow at Prune, a dish that makes him sad to think about because he’s not eating it right now. So yeah, he didn’t remember the parsley salad there – the bone marrow is the true star of the dish.
My main dish was Moussaka. It’s one of Curt’s favorites: however, he and I have only been familiar with the Greek version up to this point. You can get it in any of the ubiquitous Greek diners in NYC. The last time I made it I used Diane Kochilas’ recipe after seeing her on TV being praised for her moussaka. There are people who go to her restaurant, Pylos, just for the moussaka, and especially when they find out she’s in town (she splits her time between New York City and Greece.)
I’ve never been to Pylos, but they style themselves as serving Rustic Greek Home Cooking, which is exactly what moussaka is. Think casseroles, lasagnas: those layered dishes that only get better with time, both in the oven and in the fridge. They’re not the prettiest of dishes, but they’re extremely satisfying and soulful.
The moussaka at Moustache was different. We were told that it was vegan, and I wondered how that would be possible, given the topping of bechamel and rich meat sauce that one usually finds in and on their moussaka. This dish, however, was more like a Lebanese Moussaka, a stew of eggplant, chickpea, and tomato. A recipe I found online would be a close approximation, if you subtract the mint and feta from the end.
The dish tasted slow-cooked, and the chickpeas had a delightful texture, with just enough bite to provide a slight contrast to the stewed vegetables. I didn’t eat this dish with any rice or bread, though it would certainly be delicious with it. This dish will definitely have to go into my summer repertoire, when eggplants and tomatoes are once again in season.
Timmy had the falafel sandwich, which we were also told was vegan. I was intrigued. I always thought tahini sauce was yogurt-based – at least from the creamy look of it when drizzled over the monster falafel sandwiches from Mamoun’s in the Village, a frequent haunt of mine when I was a freshman in college. But an online search today tells me otherwise. It seems that tahini sauce can be made with or without yogurt. Tahini, by the way, is dead easy to make – toast sesame seeds in a dry pan, throw into food processor and add a little olive oil to make into a paste.
Curt decided to forgo the vegan route, and ordered one of the signature dishes: the Lahambajin Pitza. This is ground lamb, onion, tomato, parsley and spices on top of pitza, which seemed to be a pita type bread that lay flat like (of course) pizza. Yummy. Lamb is one of my favorite meats (so excited for Easter soon!), and the Middle Eastern way of seasoning it is gorgeous.
In all, a great experience. Timmy said if this restaurant was in his neighborhood, he’d never eat anywhere else. Curt and I are always happy when a neighborhood restaurant exceeds our expectations, and we’ll definitely be back.