If a meal is vegan and made using locally grown natural ingredients, it has negative calories.
Well, probably not. But that’s what I’m choosing to believe about the delicious vegan food being served at chef Miguel Larcher’s Garden Grill Cafe, which opened in October in the historic Occidental Building, 300 N. Main.
Larcher is the Martinique-born chef who earned a following cooking at d’Sozo, a Vegan restaurant at 1812 S. Seneca, which closed in late 2011. Larcher took it over for a while, then decided to start over somewhere new. He’s now serving several of the same sandwiches, salads and entrees that d’Sozo fans loved — plus putting out a Sunday brunch and offering cooking classes.
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A recent visit confirmed that Larcher’s still producing flavorful dishes that’ll thrill the vegan crowd and make Midwestern meat eaters forget what’s missing. And despite a few problems with service, the food is so delicious (and guilt-free) that I’ll definitely return.
ON THE MENU: The menu offers several meat-free, animal-product-free salads, pizzas, sandwiches, pastas, soups and desserts. Larcher also offers fresh-squeezed juices, fruit smoothies and “green smoothies,” including one made with kale, parsley, pineapple and fresh lime juice. He also specializes in baked goods, including some pretty amazing vegan muffins.
DON’T MISS DISHES: Each dish we sampled at Garden Grill Cafe was a delicious surprise, and it got better with every dish that arrived at the table. (Though the dishes arrived at the table in a slow, unorganized manner.)
Our favorite dish — and the one we’re most likely to return for immediately — was a thin-crust pizza ($8.99 for a medium, $12.99 for a large) called Four Seasons. What made it so amazing? The homemade thin crust, for one, which was imperfectly circular but perfectly crispy around the edges. It was topped with a rich, basil-y and chunky tomato sauce and generous amounts of artichoke hearts, mushrooms, grilled eggplant, asparagus pieces and a little “veg cheese.” A medium is about nine inches and more than enough for one person. The crust also is available gluten-free, and the menu includes three other pizza varieties, including a Hawaiian topped with pineapple, bell pepper and veggie bacon.
A word about the imitation meats: I’m not a fan. To me, they taste strange and the texture is off-putting. I’d rather choose one of the many dishes that showcase mushrooms, beans and other hearty vegetables.
One of the salads we ordered — the Garden Grill — had grilled “veg chicken” as one of its toppings. Sampled on its own, it was mushy and strange. Eaten in a bite with all the other vegetables, it was fine. Though we wouldn’t avoid dishes that used imitation meats as one of many ingredients, we did avoid those that used it as a main ingredient. The Garden Grill Cafe features veg bacon, beef, turkey and chicken in various dishes.
There was no imitation meat in the restaurant’s take on steak frites ($8), made with steaky portabella mushrooms and grilled onions and artfully topped with herbed potatoes, thick-cut lengthwise. The mushrooms were salty and tasted great with the slivers of grilled onion. The potatoes also had nice seasonings, but I’d prefer them if they were cut thinner and were more crispy. Larcher serves this type of potato on the side of many of his dishes.
We also liked the three-mushroom garden ziti ($9), which had a wonderful olive oil and herb sauce and was mixed with grilled shitake, oyster and white mushrooms, plus chunks of grilled red pepper. The eggless whole-wheat pasta had a different texture and less resistance than typical al dente pasta, but the flavor was fine.
We tried three salads to start, and each was good. But each also was pricey, averaging about $6 for a small. The best one was the simple and very green Garden Green salad, made with lovely spinach, celery and alfalfa sprouts and topped with a savory citrus dressing. It was $6.25.
We tried a trio of desserts and loved them all. The most surprising was a slice of halva, a Middle Eastern dessert made with sesame paste. It was nothing much to look at it, but the texture and nutty flavor were terrific. A small but satisfying square was $1.09. We also loved the cheesecake made with tofu ($4.60). Though it clearly was not made from cream cheese, the texture was right, and, with the addition of the berry sauce served on the side, it was difficult to tell the difference between the vegan slice and the real thing.
AMBIANCE: The dining room that seats 40 is nicely appointed with a red tile floor, mixture of tables and booths and tasteful touches such as pendant lights. It also has the open atrium ceiling that diners will remember from past Occidental Building restaurant tenants such as Two Feathers and El Torero. A door in the small room that heads outside is opened far too often, as kitchen staff head in and out to a storage area, letting cold air fill the room.
PRICE RANGE: The food is a bit pricier than one would expect. Sandwiches and entrees mostly are $9. Salads are $3.50 to $7.95. Smoothies are $6.99.
SERVICE: The two servers working the busy dining room were pleasant, but they also were a bit disorganized. Our drinks came out about 15 minutes after we ordered them, and two of the salads arrived about five minutes before the third. Our lunch took more than an hour from start to finish, and one set of diners nearby tersely asked for their food to go, explaining that they were out of time.