If you have been following this column over the last couple of issues, I have no doubt that you now picture me in bursting, rotund glory, oil dribbling down my chin, gingers sticky with grease and barbecue sauces of varying hues spattering my formerly gleaming white linen shirt like bad tie-dye. While I number such companions among my friends, I concede to none of the above. Yours truly stands just five and a half feet in height and weighs in at a mere one hundred and twenty-five pounds – soaking wet. But, cholesterol-laden feeding frenzies are an occasional part of my life, not unlike shopping sprees.
I promised several friends to point my pen in a lighter direction for this back-to-school column. I cannot lay claim to being vegetarian in any of its aspects. I am not classifiable as ovo-lacto-, ovo-, lacto-, or pure vegan. I am, by nature and habit, an omnivore. If it is presented as food, I am quite willing to taste, to nibble, to consume. Nonetheless, I and my dining companions regularly find ourselves seated in the company of those who decline to ingest nervous systems.
We begin one evening, as we often do, in the West Village. My favorite lane is close at hand, with its trees, its row houses, its mews and theater. Strolling peacefully down Commerce Street, we round the bend. Halfway down the block we arrive at Shojin, our destination for the evening’s repast. A simple wood and glass exterior greets us, a somewhat bare white interior dotted with plants awaits.
The atmosphere is perhaps beyond relaxed. It is not unusual to find someone occupying a table solo for many hours, as they peruse the pages of some tome or another. Conversations throughout the dining room are engaging, and we often participate, table to table. Both the staff and fellow patrons are friendly, and we have seen groups from neighborhing seating join each other to complete a meal, and leave together for further festivities of the evening.
The menu is likewise friendly and simple, and states “Strictly Vegetarian Foods for Your Health of Soul”. The Japanese-style dishes are explained in easy terms. Questions are quickly answered and concerns are resolved by the chipper staff. The selection is varied, with something for everyone’s tastes.
Start with a soup, either the miso or the daily special, which ranges far and wide in the quest to whet your appetite. Follow it up with vegetable spring rols, soba noodles, deep-fried eggplant, or my favorite, the hijiki (seaweed) sautéed with carrots. The whole wheat bread with peanut-tahini spread is wonderful, especially dunked in the soups.
Tofu shows up in several guises, from a delicious teriyaki marinade to the tasty sauté with ginger-miso and vegetables. Gluten, often used as a meat substitute, shows up in cutlet form with vegetables, with curry, in sweet soy-broth, or my personal choice, barbecued (well, I can’t completely escape my past). Buckwheat soba noodles are somewhat bland, but for those who simply must have pasta… My favorite is the tempura, a heaping platter of fresh vegetables, deep-fried in whole wheat batter, with a ginger dipping sauce.
For dessert, there is, of course, the staple of vegetarian cuisine; carrot cake. It is good, but Shojin has a dessert that is a must-try – the tofu pie, with fruit topping, or blended with pumpkin, or even my personal favorite, plain. It easily rivals the cheesecakes served at most eateries in the Big Apple, without the cheese. Definitely drop in here when it’s time to clear out those arteries.
Shojin, 23 Commerce Street (near 7th Avenue), 212-989-3530. No credit cards. Open Monday through Saturday for dinner. Takeout available. Dinner $15-20.
Among my favorite cuisines are those of the Middle East. I can’t claim it’s because my people are desert people; as far back as the dark ages, we’re Eastern Europeans. Maybe it was watching Lawrence of Arabia, or Casablanca – I’m fairly sure it wasn’t Ishtar. Most Middle Eastern cuisines lend themselves well to vegetarian cooking, and I was thrilled ro find someone specializing in doing just that. Moving a bit towards the center of the Village, we wandered our way down MacDougal Street to Boostan.
It would be easy to describe this little cafe as a hole-in-the-wall, though that conjures up images that are not conducive to eating. Nonetheless, clean and bright as it is, hole-in-the-wall is a good description. We opted for the outdoor tables, which, likely, are limited to the summer months. The floor staff is friendly, though tend to be forgetful, and you may have to reorder items you were quite sure were on the way. But the wait is worth it.
From the miniscule kitchen in the rear, a parade of mouthwatering, hearty and healthy dishes emerge. I cannot begin to recommend the Potato Mushroom Pie highly enough – layers of mashed potatoes with savory mushrooms, onions, and walnuts. The grape leaves stuffed with brown rice, onions, herbs and lemon have a bright zip. The fava bean salad with tomatoes, cucumber and mint makes a meal in itself.
The best bet if you want to try a little of everything is the Combination Delight; a little falafel, baba ghannouj, hummous, fava beans, stuffed grape leaves, and other delights. You won’t miss the traditional lamb in the potato and eggplant moussaka topped with homemade mozzarella and almonds. Spinach, fava beans, chickpeas, eggplant, cauliflower, okra, couscous, and brown rice all show up in a profusion of entrees. Pasta dishes are simple, from Fettucine Alfredo to Semoline Penne with pesto. And if you simply must have a meat, Boostan concedes with one dish, a choice of baked salmon or sole with garlic, lemon and almonds.
Desserts range from pudding and yogurt to traditional Middle Eastern specialties like baklava and halvah. In between are a selection of cakes and pies, from the ever present carrot to chocolate, amaretto cheese and tofu. Who can pass up baklava when it’s offered?
Boostan, 85 MacDougal Street (near Bleecker), 212-533-9561. No credit cards. Open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner. Takeout and delivery available. Lunch $5-10, Dinner $15-20.
Given that I, and several of my dining companions, are trained chefs, we have actually been known to cook meals at home. As in, not eating out, dirty pots, plates and cutlery notwithstanding. One of my favorite weekend tasks is heading off into the nether reaches in search of obscure ingredients, exotic produce, and essential cooking tips.
En route one recent weekend to a housewarming party, I found myself wending my way down Sullivan Street to that limbo region of the central Village. There, like a beacon on the rocky shores, was my culinary equivalent of the holy grail; Hot Stuff, the Spicy Food Store. Genuflecting quickly and thanking the chilies that be, I poked my head in and looked around. A small but well laid out emporium of piquancy greeted my eyes. The aromas wafting through the air said, in a word, “hot”.
Quietly careening from shelf to shelf, I quickly loaded the checkout counter with smoked chipotle peppers, chili peanut butter, hot sesame oil, lime pickles, and the hot sauces from all of Dante’s hells (my favorite, for those who must follow the leader, is El Yucateco Salsa Popular de Chile Habaneros; green).
For those who just can’t make it, Hot Stuff prints a mail order catalog. But it’s worth the trip. How can you miss with a place where the owner and top tamale says, “Life is just a bowl of chilies!”?
Hot Stuff, 227 Sullivan Street (near Bleecker), 212-254-6120. If you like spicy food, bring a well-packed wallet. Checks, money orders, Visa and Mastercard accepted.
CaB magazine was one of the first publications I ever wrote for. Published by my dear friend Andrew Martin, it covered the Cabaret, Theater, Music and Dining scene in New York City, long before slick publications like Time Out NY and Where NY became popular. We had great fun writing it, and some wonderful writers contributed to its pages. When the magazine folded in the mid-90s, Andrew disappeared from the scene, and rumors had it that he departed from this existence not long after. I was thrilled to find out in mid-October 2005, a decade later, that the rumors were just that. Andrew contacted me after finding my site via that omnipresent force, Google. He’s alive and well and a member of a comedy troupe called Meet the Mistake. Somehow quite fitting!