31 July 2010

Solay Bistro

I heard about Solay Bistro from the fine folks over at AltEatsColumbus. It would have been easy to miss Solay Bistro amongst the cadre of international options in this one strip mall. Luckily, since I was alerted to the vegetarian choices available at Solay, I can share the delicious flavors available to diners at this eatery.

Solay Bistro is a medium-sized family place that features organic food from a variety of cultures. The majority of the menu is Somalian and Ethiopian, with a smattering of Italian, Mediterranean and New World options.

Vegetarian selections include hummus, sambusas, black eyed peas, salads, spinach, lentil curry, veggie burgers, falafel sandwiches, an almond butter, banana and jelly sandwich, pasta alfredo and many flavors of fresh fruit smoothies.

I sampled the potato sambusa, an Ethiopian cousin of the Indian samosa. The cultural exchange between Ethiopia and India dates back to the anchient trade routes, which along with spices and fabrics brought both countries a dynamic culinary tradition. There are still large Indian populations in Ethiopia and vice versa. The sambusa at Solay Bistro is stuffed with spicy potatoes and peas, served with a slightly spicy green sauce. The flavor is fantastic.

The green lentils are prepared fresh, and as a result, they take about 20 minutes to prepare from scratch. The lentils are augmented with peppers and green herbs, and they are delicately seasoned. Again, the culinary similarities to Indian dishes like chana masala are evident, but the dish is unique enough to stand on its own.

I sampled the lentils with a tasty herbed cous cous. Ideally, the best way to enjoy Ethipian food is accompanied by the national flatbread, anjeero. Anjeero (sometimes spelled injera) is a soft, spongy bread made from the African grain teff. It is delicious on its own, and it allows diners to eat off of other people's plates by scooping up samples with their hands.

The staff at Solay Bistro provides excellent service. They are very accommodating to vegetarian inquiries. Solay also passes the other eye test: the restaurant had three tables full of international clientele that didn't speak English (or at least converse in a language I don't speak), which is a testament to the restaurant's authenticity.

Solay Bistro
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25 July 2010


Knead is a fun new eatery in the Short North that prepares breakfast, lunch and dinner with the finest local ingredients. Almost everything is made with Ohio ingredients, and as a result, everything made is fresh and fantastic.

I've been excited about Knead for some time now. Owners Rick and Krista Lopez previously ran Trattoria la Tavola, and Rick also worked at Tapatio, which in my humble opinion is the finest restaurant in the history of Columbus. The menu that the Lopez's have created is akin to the menu at Skillet, another of my favorite places in Columbus.

Interestingly, Knead has a different menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Breakfast is available through the afternoon. There are many options for all three meals that are acceptable for vegetarians and vegans alike. There are vegetarian pizzas, pasta dishes, burritos, vegan sloppy joes and breakfast items including French toast and yogurt, fruit and granola.

The Slop V Joe (a clever pun on sloppy joe) is a vegan sandwich that uses chopped vegetables in place of soy crumbles. You can see beans, corn, peppers and grains suspended in the sauce. It is served on a house made roll with a pickle. The sandwich is so good you'll probably never want a soy crumble sloppy joe ever again.

Fries are thinly sliced and lightly crispy, served with a house fennel ketchup. They are tasty and well portioned.

The brioche French toast is prepared with seasonal fruit and Ohio maple syrup. It is lightly dusted with powdered sugar, and the fresh bread adds great flavor to the dish.

The house made biscuits with blackberry compote were also great. The biscuits are so large that they actually look more like a bun than a biscuit. The texture, however, is the flaky one that has made buttermilk biscuits famous.

The mixed green salad is prepared with an Ohio feta cheese that adds a mild, creamy flavor to the vinaigrette. The mixture of seasonal greens works beautifully together.

I really want to sample the burrito and some of the pizzas on the dinner menu. I'll definitely be back to check it out soon.

Knead offers a large selection of Ohio beers, with fine selections from Columbus Brewing and the Thirsty Dog, as well as working man's options like Hudy Delight and Burger Beer. There are delicious dessert choices available too.

Service at Knead is working out some of the kinks. Since the place has just opened, I will give them an opportunity to iron out the rougher edges.


Knead on Urbanspoon

24 July 2010

Urban Belly

Urban Belly is Bill Kim's flagship establishment. It is a Pan-Asian restaurant with communal dining arrangement specializing in dumplings and noodles. It is a cool spot in a strip mall on Chicago's Northwest side.

I spent a good deal of space singing Chef Kim's praises in my review of his latest operation, Belly Shack. He generates a great deal of buzz because his restaurants are fun and offer a lot of bang for the buck.

The chairs at the long tables are built from wood from salvaged Indonesian ships. The decor is minimal, understated and inviting. There is a fairly brisk turnover of the seats.

While there are no vegetarian dumplings listed on the menu, Urban Belly offers the squash dumplings prepared without bacon. The dumplings were garnished with daikon, green onions and tangerines. They were stuffed with squash that had a spicy accent. The veggie squash dumplings were a subtly sweet and absolutely sublime.

The Asian egg noodles consisted of a bathtub-sized bowl of delicious noodles, fried crispy on the ends and soft in the middle, in a chili garlic broth with eggplant and tofu cubes. The massive portion provided plenty of satisfying flavors the run the gamut from spicy to vegetal to savory.

The Szechwan wrinkled green beans were a delightful take on a Chinese classic. The rich, spicy sauce was accented with crunchy almonds that add another layer of texture to a dish that already possesses a pile of flavor.

Prices are reasonable, and although there are limited choices for vegetarians, the options are good enough to make Urban Belly a foodie destination.

Urban Belly

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22 July 2010

Graham Elliot

Graham Elliot is the namesake restaurant of noted chef Graham Elliot Bowles. Bowles has gained notoriety over the years from his stints at restaurants like the Mansion on Turtle Creek, Charlie Trotter's and Tru, on the Top Chef Masters program on Bravo, and from his much publicized spat this week with Chicago Magazine.

Graham Elliot combines Bowles' lighthearted spirit with his flair for the dramatic in fine dining. Servers are dressed down, sporting Chuck Taylors on their feet as opposed to Italian dress shoes. The decor is refined, modern and stylish.

While there are not many vegetarian choices on the menu, the staff was more than willing to prepare vegetarian items a al carte or as part of any of the degustations.

One of the most talked about items at Graham Elliot is his deconstructed Caesar salad (warning: it's not vegetarian) that actually contains a brioche Twinkie. My vegetarian first course was a deconstructed Caprese salad, with green zebra tomatoes, croutons, buffalo mozzarella, basil sprigs and a solid mass that functioned as a green basil crouton. The textures ran the gamut from crispy to soft, and each bite gives a different perspective on the flavors that compose the dish.

The spring pea bisque is a bright, fresh mouthful of the season. The savory quotient of the dish is turned up by creme fraiche, and the clean pea notes linger beautifully on the palate.

The third course was a spring salad, prepared with leafy greens, asparagus, nectarine segments and crispy flatbread wedges in a pea-laced vinaigrette. The flavor is tangy, bright and delicious.

The breaded tofu course was served with mushrooms, microgreens and foamed soy sauce that adds a luscious quality to the dish. Both the presentation and the taste of the dish were breathtaking.

My dessert was a dark chocolate torte with an almond financier, apricot jam, salted caramel sauce and cream cheese. This was another dish where the variety of flavors and textures are on the plate, and by combining the many elements in various ways, each bite is a different experience.

The Intelligentsia coffee from the French press was a nice touch. It was served with an hourglass that, when empty, signified that the coffee was ready to drink.

Graham Elliot is a great experience. The fun environment combined with the cutting edge cuisine is absolutely worth the trip.

Graham Elliot

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21 July 2010

Lula Cafe

Lula Cafe is a great neighborhood eatery that turns out locally sourced breakfast, lunch and dinner choices in an intimate environment in the shadows of the Illinois Centennial Monument.

I checked the place out on a friend's recommendation, and I was thoroughly impressed by the quality of the food and the variety of choices for vegetarian diners.

I previously relied on a few old standbys in the area for breakfast. I usually eat light for breakfast, but a few times per year, I go all out and eat a full breakfast. At Lula, my favorite part of the menu (other than its seasonal makeup) was the variety of sweet and savory options for meatless eaters like myself.

Lula Cafe consists of two dining rooms and a decent sized patio area. Service is moderately paced and efficient.

Vegetarian options for breakfast include a bagel and cream cheese, a veggie bagel sandwich, granola and fruit with yogurt, pancakes prepared with fruit, French toast, oatmeal with cherries and banana, egg frittata, a breakfast burrito and an organic tofu scramble. Lula also offers juice, coffee and milk.

I sampled the tofu scramble. The extra firm tofu is prepared in a ginger miso sauce with spinach, tomato, carrot, squash and zucchini. The sauce is both savory and sweet, giving an Asian flair to a dish that is a classic breakfast standard. It is served with herb-accented home fries and toast. When accompanied by the house coffee blend and a fresh squeezed orange juice, the scramble is extremely successful.

There are also many vegetarian choices on the lunch, brunch and dinner menus. Some of the options that caught my eye include sour cream griddle cakes, zucchini bread with goat milk butter, vegetarian maki rolls, a shiitake, onion and chevre quesadilla, and a $45 vegetarian tasting menu for dinner.

Lula Cafe

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20 July 2010


iCream is an ice cream parlor that turns up the heat (or turns it down, depending on your perspective) by making dessert with liquid nitrogen. The format lets you build-your-own ice cream, yogurt or sorbet with a choice of milk, flavors, toppings and colors.

Since I watch every food-related program on television, from the Food Network to the Cooking Channel, as well as foodie shows on Bravo, the Learning Channel and the PBS stations, I was familiar with iCream. I first saw iCream in an episode of Chefs vs. City on the Food Network.

Vegetarians have the option of building ice cream from a soy milk base. I chose a soy milk chocolate peanut butter Butterfinger cookie dough ice cream. The staff prepared my order behind glass, mixing, freezing and serving it in less than five minutes.

If my combo doesn't look good, there are plenty of other flavor options available. The liquid nitrogen preparation adds a molecular-gastronomy accent to the flavor and texture of summer.


icream on Urbanspoon

Big Star

Patrons wait for hours just to sample the faux-dive decor and the Southwestern fare at the bustling Big Star in Bucktown/Wicker Park. The place combines the talents of one of Chicago's star chefs (Paul Kahan) with the skills of the city's most well-known mixologist (Michael Rubel of the Violet Hour) into a stylized honky tonk setting that never sees a slow second.

Since the place is new and hot, a long waiting list for a table is commonplace. I dined at the bar to avoid the wait. It is also advantageous to take advantage of the take-out window in order to avoid the wait entirely (the window is labeled "we sell flavor" in Spanish).

The West Coast honky tonk motif is more tongue-in-cheek than reality. The building is clean and brightly colored. The staff does a tremendous job considering the amount of business.

The menu is small at Big Star. There are limited vegetarian options that include poblano tacos, guacamole, pickled onions, pickled chiles and a house Southwestern salad.

The guacamole was very good. It was garnished with ribbons of radish and served with thick, crunchy tortilla chips.

The poblano tacos were outstanding. The sweet, smoky flavor of poblano was contrasted nicely by the addition of queso freir, which is a white cheese made for pan frying, as well as Mexican crema and oregano. It was excellent, albeit a bit expensive ($3 per taco). It is served with a green sauce and a red sauce, which add additional flavors to the dish.

Going along with the restaurant concept, cocktails and drink specials revolve around whiskey. There is also a substantial selection of beer.

While the experience at Big Star is enjoyable, it might be worth waiting a few months for the hype to die down before visiting. Those who just can't wait might also benefit from the convenience of the take-out window.

Big Star

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19 July 2010

Belly Shack

Located in the shadow of the L in the middle of a concrete jungle, Belly Shack is the latest effort from Bill Kim, a heralded chef with much-publicized stints at some of the creme de la creme of Chicago restaurants including Le Lan and Charlie Trotter's.

His latest effort offers Asian/Latin fusion dishes that reflect the combined heritage of Kim and his Puerto Rican wife, and Belly Shack is also influenced by heralded eateries on both coasts.

While the seemingly disparate combination of Korean and Puerto Rican food might seem strange, in the hands of Kim it goes together like white on rice. The Spartan decor and street art style add a touch of whimsy to the Belly Shack.

Vegetarian items are noted on the menu with an asterisk. Choices include a Boricua sandwich, a quinoa ssam salad, tostones, roasted sweet potatoes and a couple of desserts (prepared by another heralded name in Chicago sweets, Mindy Segal).

I started with the tostones, twice-fried crispy plantains drowned in a garlicky chimichurri sauce. While chimichurri is more classically used as a meat or seafood sauce, it has similarities to mojo, the national condiment of Puerto Rico that often accompanies tostones, and it adds another layer of fresh flavor to the dish.

The Boricua sandwich shares its identity with the people of Puerto Rico, who refer to themselves as Boricua, the native Taino population of the island. In Chicago, a Boricua sandwich contains shredded pork between fried plantains. Belly Shack replaces the pork with tofu, adds black beans and brown rice, and serves the sandwich with an earthy red soy-based sauce. The taste is a beautiful marriage of Eastern and Western elements.

Chef Kim is on a roll with his restaurants (Urban Belly being the other). I never knew how much I would like Kor-ibbean (my clever combination of Korean and Caribbean) food before venturing to Belly Shack, but after eating it for the first time, I know that the fateful pairing was meant to be.

Belly Shack

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18 July 2010


Takashi is a sleek, modern Japanese restaurant in Chicago's Bucktown neighborhood. While the place is noted for its sushi and ramen dishes, Takashi uses the same culinary dexterity to create vegetarian fare that can compete with anything else swimming across the menu.

Takashi has gotten a pile of good press in the last few years, from a three-and-a-half star rating in Chicago Magazine to a Tribune article where renowned culinary wunderkind Rick Bayless called Takashi's noodles the best ramen in the city. Takashi Yagihashi's tenure as a chef has seen him excel in Detroit, Las Vegas and Chicago, and he has previously been recognized by the James Beard foundation as the Best Chef in the Midwest.

The menu is short on vegetarian options. However, because the kitchen is a wellspring of talent, it bends over backward to accommodate vegetarians.

The bread was outstanding. The multigrain bread and sourdough were both exceptionally satisfying.

I started with the chilled homemade tofu. If you request that they hold the bonito flakes, the dish is a vegan preparation. The tofu is boiled and served at a cool temperature with a creamy texture. The accompanying scallions, oba leaves, seaweed and ginger soy sauce add a variety of flavors and textures to a deeply complex dish.

The vegetarian dish was prepared with a fresh market selection of the chef's choosing. There were two deep fried risotto and cheese balls, a corn and black bean cake, pickled cabbage, and a myriad of other cooked veggies and sauces. The entree was a fantastic international combination that performed together in amazing unified precision.

Takashi has a wine list that pairs well with its menu as well as an esoteric and exotic cocktail menu. Service was prompt, attentive and well paced.


Takashi on Urbanspoon

15 July 2010


Rick Bayless has received so much adulation over the years, it's hard for me to continue piling on the praise. His new venture Xoco is still amazing enough to have put the superstar chef on the map all by itself when considered apart from the rest of the Bayless empire.

Though Bayless is a man who needs no introduction, I'll provide it anyway just to put the whole thing in perspective: Rick is the greatest American ambassador of regional Mexican cuisine. His restaurants (Topolobampo and Frontera Grill) are two of the nation's finest restaurants, elevating Mexican cuisine to a place that seemed unthinkable in a previous era. Bayless' television series Mexico: One Plate at a Time explains the finer details about the preparation of classic Mexican cuisine. His most well known television performance, however, came when he won the crown on Bravo's first season of Top Chef Masters against a virtual who's who in the culinary world.

Xoco is the latest addition to Bayless' portfolio. Xoco translates as little sister in Mexican parlance, and Xoco is the least formal and least expensive member of the Bayless family tree. While it cuts costs, however, Xoco more than makes up for it in quality of ingredients and presentation.

The menu at Xoco centers on sandwiches, soups, salads and other staples. Xoco has a limited selection of alcoholic beverages, and they also feature amazing agua frescas (including a cucumber mint lime one that was a refreshing delight) and house-roasted single producer Mexican chocolate drinks.

There are not a lot of options on the menu for vegetarians. However, there are many vegetarian salads and sides on the menu in addition to a wild mushroom sandwich and a vegetable, bean and rice plate that are full-time menu options.

I started with the Frontera guacamole. The cup of guacamole was flecked with cilantro and jicama, and it was served with perfectly prepared chips that were adorned with a delicate dash of salt. The dish was a success on all levels.

The side salad was prepared with romaine, arugala, jicama and cucumber in a tangy avocado lime dressing. The appearance of the salad was understated, but the dish exploded into a bright, beautifully harmonic symphony of flavor.

I sampled a daily special, which was a local micro greens and wild greens sandwich prepared with Indiana goat cheese on a griddled bun with a side of corn and black bean salsa. The greens gave the dish an earthy flavor that contrasted with the tangy cheese.

Prices at Xoco are amazingly low. I ate everything that wasn't nailed down and still left paying less than $20. It's a great way to sample Bayless' magic without breaking the bank.


XOCO on Urbanspoon

09 July 2010


Lynnally's is the latest to set up shop in the space that housed Deli in the Alley and the Sandwich Stop off Pearl Alley. The menu features sandwiches, pasta, potatoes and salads, and it provides plenty of variety for the Downtown crowd.

The decor is Lynnally's is not markedly different from the previous tenants. Service is relatively fast.

Although Lynnally's serves both breakfast and dinner, there are not vegetarian breakfast items on the menu. Vegetarian lunch options include a veggie sandwich, a garlic butter baked potato, a pasta primavera, fettuccine alfredo, and many salads, including a build-your-own salad.

The veggie sub carries the ostentatious designation "the World's Tastiest Veggie Sub." Despite its self-congratulatory nomenclature, the interesting combination of fresh ingredients makes the sandwich succeed. A white sub roll is stuffed with cucumber, tomato, mushroom, peppers, asparagus, red onion and artichoke hearts. It then has Swiss cheese melted on top with a roasted red pepper aioli. The veggies, especially the asparagus and the sauteed mushrooms, add great textures and flavors to a delicious sandwich. While the jury might be out on whether this sandwich is the best ever, it's safe to call it a pretty damned good veggie sub.

The potato was also excellent. It is cooked to a melt-in-your-mouth consistency, and the garlic and butter add extra layers of satisfying flavor.

With varied choices on the menu at Lynnally's, the place should provide a decent array of choices for vegetarians. They keep traditional Downtown Columbus business hours (Monday through Friday, breakfast and lunch).


Lynnally's on Urbanspoon

07 July 2010

Greek Corner

Greek Corner is a tastefully appointed Greek restaurant in Upper Arlington. The UA location is the second Greek Corner; the first is located on Dublin Granville Road in Dublin. As with most Greek restaurants, Greek Corner features a wide variety of appetizers and entrees for vegetarian diners.

Having never been to the Dublin location of Greek Corner, it is difficult for me to compare the two locations. The Upper Arlington location is intimate. The interior showcases wood accents, and there is ample bar seating.

Greek Corner utilizes one of my favorite vegetarian helpers: all vegetarian dishes are marked with a double asterisk. Vegetarian starters include spanakopita, saganaki, Italian eggplant, falafel, hummus, skordalia and a Greek salad. Vegetarian entrees include many sandwiches, such as a falafel pita, a veggie pita and a veggie panini, as well as entrees like stuffed peppers and vegetarian Greek pasta.

I tried a few different starters. The skordalia showcased deep garlic flavors and a light, whipped potato character. It paired well with the warm pita triangles. The only complaint I had was that the potatoes were whipped a little too heavily, making the dip somewhat airy. The flavor, however, was excellent.

The saganaki, a classic dish, was very good. The cheese was hot, and the lemon juice used to quell the flames added a subtle citrus note to the flavor profile.

The Greek salad was typical of the style. It was made with feta cheese and kalamata olives in the classic Greek style.

The vegetarian stuffed pepper, while it is not the most traditional Greek dish, was prepared with enough Greek accents to give it a Hellenic flair. The pepper was stuffed with tomato, red pepper, rice and feta cheese, and it was served with a side of steamed, mixed vegetables. The dish was fresh, flavorful and delicious.

Greek Corner has a full bar, and they offer a wide variety of Greek wines and beers. Business seems to be busier at lunchtime than at dinner.

Greek Corner

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03 July 2010

Bollywood Bistro

Bollywood Bistro is the latest addition to the ethnic dining scene on the Northwest side. It is a small restaurant that offers tons of options for vegans and vegetarians alike.

Bollywood Bistro is focused on quality, yet the prices are very reasonable. The lunch buffet clocks in at less than $9, and comes with naan.

The dal makhani was delicious. It was made with a darker lentil than is typical of this dish, and it imparted a faint smokiness to the flavor profile.

The mushroom mutter was also fantastic. The mushrooms were cooked to a tender consistency, and they made a great foil to the peas and the spicy curry base.

The saag paneer was made with soft cubes of cheese and spinach. It was mild and had a great depth of flavor.

The pakoras were also great. There were both vegetable pakoras made of a variety of veggies combined into a patty, as well as onion-ring-like onion pakoras. The chick pea batter was thick and crunchy, making both pakoras succeed.

The korma was a creamy combination of paneer, nuts, and spices, including turmeric and cumin. It was rich and savory, with subtle cashew notes bursting through between hints of onion and butter.

The potato dish (aloo methi, I think) was a spicy. It was made with cubed potato, fenugreek and garlic. The crispy potatoes add a nice touch to the preparation.

The sambhar was probably the most disappointing item I tried. The vegetables included potato and okra, which looked great to me. The flavor, however, was one dimensional and not exciting.

I was also not impressed by the chutneys. The mint chutney had a fairly processed character and a ghostly color, almost like it was made from concentrate or purchased in bulk. While the most everything I sampled was carefully prepared and executed, the chutney seemed like an afterthought.

The walls of the restaurant are adorned with Bombay cinema posters. The service was very attentive.

Overall, Bollywood Bistro has potential. The new venture from one of the owners of Sher-E-Punjab is worth checking out.

Bollywood Bistro

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