April 21, 2010

Vapid Vegetarianism

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Moosewood, a local vegetarian mecca, is run by a “collective” of 18 individuals — possibly because it is more efficient this way, possibly because no one person wants to take the fall for shoddy food. In any case, the brand has exploded over the past thirty years, and Moosewood has gone mainstream. Grocery stores now carry their salad dressings, all-organic refrigerated soups and frozen entrées. The restaurant has published 12 cookbooks that have sold over 3 million copies. Moosewood cooks have appeared on TV and radio shows during book tours, and have participated in cooking demonstrations, chef trainings, vegetarian cooking classes and book signings.

Despite all the attention given to this temple of vegetarian cuisine, upon eating at Moosewood one fact becomes unshakably clear: the food really isn’t that good.

Non-alcoholic drinks include classic ginger tea (the liquid equivalent of sucking on raw ginger) and raspberry herbal tea (which, as a fellow diner agreed, “doesn’t taste like much”). Both were served with compostable paper straws; a nice touch, but no amount of tree hugging can make up for flavor.

Out the rotating appetizers, the salmon cake was extremely questionable; the dish was served mere moments after being ordered, indicating that it had been fried previously and was sitting in a warming tray. A barely lukewarm temperature confirmed this notion. A melon wedge and sliced tomatoes were strange garnishes, begging to be eaten, but unattractive nonetheless. Sadly, even a flavorful lemon herb aioli could not save the day. Another appetizer, BBQ tofu, was equally disappointing, crying out for salt, pepper or seasoning of any kind. And rock hard tabs of butter in the bread basket? Come on, guys. Just because Moosewood was built in a renovated school doesn’t make cafeteria-quality food acceptable.

Every entrée comes with a side salad with dressings like miso-ginger (watery), house (flavorless) and lemon tahini (the best of the three). Containing shaved carrot, sliced zucchini and a single kalamata olive, the salads are palatable, but by no means live up to this vegetable palace’s hype.  Soups, an item for which Moosewood is especially lauded, lacked in flavor and complexity. Corn chowder initially tasted of corn but slowly faded into a bland afterthought. Similarly, spicy peanut soup turned flavors of peanut butter and Tabasco into a goopy amalgamation.

Entrées are hit-or-miss. Lasagna is served piping hot with a tasty ricotta/mozzarella/romano cheese combination. However, the noodles were overcooked to the point of mush, the béchamel sauce tastes of chalk and tomatoes and spinach tucked inside add little. Stuffed vegetables served on a bed of brown rice and pecans are borderline delicious, and the side of asparagus is perfectly cooked. Tilapia, though, is served with sweet potatoes sugary enough to be a dessert. While the Moosewood website refers to its food as “healthful,” which it very well is, it is no more “imaginative” than Olive Garden fare. When dining at Moosewood, I’d skip the entrées: Playing Russian roulette with your main course just isn’t worth the $17 price tag.

Desserts are the most successfully executed items on the menu and at only $5, they rarely disappoint. Jamaican gingerbread is a flavorful cake (though what exactly is Jamaican about it remains a mystery) served with sliced apples and whipped cream. Apple cake has the same texture and flavors as banana bread, and is decadently moist. A chocolate mousse made with ricotta was thick enough to snap a plastic spoon, but rich and not too sweet. Blackberry tiramisu was the best of the desserts — a sweet and tart combination of blackberry compote, ladyfingers and lemon cream.

You’d be better off saving yourself the time, the trek and the tip, and heading over to Moosewood at Anabel Taylor. The soups are no better than at the flagship — Savannah sweet potato bisque is terribly bland and the Tuscan white bean and vegetable suffers from a fatal dousing of oregano — but the sandwiches are delicious and reasonably priced. A hummus pita combines hummus, alfalfa, spinach, tomato and the salty kick of feta cheese. Simple, clean and bright, this is what vegetarian cooking at Moosewood should be. For dessert, don’t miss the homemade chocolate cake, easily one of the best on Cornell’s campus. Moist, rich but not overly sweet and covered in a decadent chocolate glaze, this cake puts the vegan chocolate cake at Oakenshield’s to shame. Open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., the café accepts Big Red Bucks.

My plea for Moosewood: get back to the food. Hold off on the retail soup line, t-shirts, cookbooks and whatever other branded crap is in the pipeline and return to making creative, flavorful, exciting vegetarian food. Until then, I’ll be content at Anabel Taylor.  RLD

Original Author: Harry Flager