Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Cocoa Beach, Florida (March 2016)

I recently returned from a few days in Cocoa Beach, Florida, where I stayed while visiting the Kennedy Space Center and attending a couple of spring training baseball games.  I did not have high expectations with respect to dining in Cocoa Beach, but fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised.

The most highly rated restaurant in the area is a seafood restaurant called Florida Fresh Grill.  From the outside, it does not look like much (it is located in a strip mall), but it is a true first-class restaurant.  The interior it is warm and inviting, with a friendly staff, a superb wine list, and amazing desserts.  Although somewhat limited, the vegetarian offerings were more than enough to satisfy me, and my seafood-loving family members were ecstatic about the rest.  I started my meal with a bowl of perfectly prepared steamed edamame.  For my entree, I ordered a plate of three side dishes (all of the menu's sides are vegetarian, which is great):  garlic mashed potatoes, haricot verts (french green beans), and the fresh seasonal vegetable dish of the day.  To my surprise, this side dish included a mixture of hearty garbanzo beans, zucchini, squash, and tomatoes, and was seasoned with Indian spices like coriander and cumin.  Everything was fresh, cooked to perfection, and delicious!

A trio of vegetable sides at Florida Fresh Grill

Vegetarians visiting Cocoa Beach also will want to acquaint themselves with two very veg-friendly casual cafes, just off the beach -- the Green Room Cafe and The Surfinista.  Both of these hip, surfer-themed places specialize in smoothies, acai bowls, and healthy food, although the Green Room Cafe has a much more extensive selection of hearty meal options.  I loved "The Golden Fold," a wrap filled with an intriguing combination of brown rice, carrots, pineapple, sesame seeds, spinach, cabbage, tofu, and special seasoning.  The homemade salsa that came with the chips also was really, really good.

"The Golden Fold" wrap served with a side of chips and homemade salsa

The smoothies and acai bowls at The Surfinista were a real treat too!

Acai bowl

A third cafe called Juice n' Java Cafe is located across the street from The Surfinista (which, in turn, is located around the corner from The Green Room).  I regret that I did not have time to eat there, especially because it appears to have not only a nice selection of vegetarian fare, but also an extensive wine list.

All three places I visited -- Florida Fresh Grill, The Green Room, and The Surfinista -- could easily accommodate those who need to avoid gluten (including my regular dining partner).
Florida's Fresh Grill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato  

Green Room Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

Cafe Surfinista Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Saturday, March 12, 2016

DC Spotlight: Vegan Tasting Menu at Cedar

Cedar in Penn Quarter is literally a hidden gem.  It is located in a windowless basement about one block away from the neighborhood's major commercial strip.  For years I walked past this place without giving it a second look.  And then one day a colleague of mine who used to be a vegan tipped me off.  I eventually made a dinner reservation, and could not have been more surprised!  

In addition to the $35 three-course vegan tasting menu and the numerous vegetarian options on the regular dinner menu (both menus feature fresh, local ingredients), the restaurant has a superb wine list and a staff that always makes you feel welcome.  While the rustic interior design is not usually my style (it sort of feels like a very dated log cabin ... sort of), I don't mind it, especially on a cold winter night.  And once you start eating and drinking and chatting with the friendly and knowledgeable waitstaff, it doesn't really matter -- Cedar quickly has become one of my favorite special occasion restaurants. 

My most recent visit was on Valentine's Day, which featured a slightly heartier version of the regular vegan tasting menu. 

Cedar's Valentine's Day Vegan Tasting Menu

For my first course I had the delicious potato and leek soup, which was served with warm homemade bread and extra virgin olive oil.

Potato & leek soup, homemade bread with olive oil, and of course wine!!!

I ordered the hearty lentils and and wild mushrooms for my entree.  Outstanding!

Yellow lentils, yellow foot chanterelle, hon shimeji, grilled trumpet, crispy mushroom roll, and truffle oil vinaigrette 

Finally, although I already was full, I tried the chocolate peanut butter mousse for dessert.

Vegan chocolate peanut butter mousse

I should note that the tasting menu items also can be ordered a la carte, and individuals with food allergies and other dietary restrictions need not worry - this place takes it all seriously, and does so with a smile and without cutting corners.  I cannot recommend it more!

Cedar Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

Saturday, February 13, 2016

DC Spotlight: Dinner at Thip Khao

DC has so many new, hot restaurants that I can no longer keep up.  But I did manage to make it to Thip Khao, recently ranked one of the area's 100 Very Best Restaurants by Washingtonian Magazine.  

Thip Khao is located in Columbia Heights and serves Laotian food.  According to its website, Thip Khao is "the home of the Lao food movement in DC" (I didn't know there was such a movement!), and the cuisine is characterized by a "variety of spices, herbs, and vegetables ranging from lemongrass, to dill, and spicy hot peppers."  The website claims, correctly, that it's "deliciously funky in all the right ways."  In other words, your taste buds definitely will not be bored at this restaurant (it's like Thai food on steroids). 

The best thing about Thip Khao (besides the very reasonable prices) is the abundance of vegetarian options on the regular menu (vegetarians should avoid the special "jungle menu," which includes items like fried pig ears and alligator).  The regular menu clearly marks everything that is or can be made vegetarian (items without gluten and soy are also marked, for those with food sensitivities).  It was difficult to choose, so I settled on a little of everything.  

First up -- and perhaps my favorite dish -- was the crispy tofu appetizer (called chuenh tofu), which was served with a spicy house sauce and scallions.  The tofu was light and fluffy, and the flavors exploded on the tongue.

Chuenh Tofu (crispy tofu)

Next up was thomp sua, or spicy lemongrass soup -- and spicy it was!  The vegetarian version comes with tofu, chili paste, tamarind, lime, dried chili, red onion, and cilantro.  If you need to clear your sinuses, this dish is for you!

Thomp Sua (spicy lemongrass soup)

Finally, for my entree, I couldn't resist the mieng viengchanh, or DIY lettuce wraps.  Again I chose the tofu option, which came with rice noodles, peanuts, ginger, cucumber, pickled jicama, cherry tomatoes, radishes, and a side of pineapple-chili sauce (along with a basket of large leafed romaine lettuce to wrap it all up in).  Although it was a little messy to assemble, the combination of flavors was perfect.

Mieng Viengchanh (DIY tofu lettuce wraps)

I cannot wait to return to Thip Khao to try more dishes.  It is exciting to see such a delicious and unique restaurant thrive in Columbia Heights.  

TIP:  Call for reservations at least one week in advance.

Thip Khao Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

Sunday, January 3, 2016

New York , New York (Dec. 2015)

I just returned from my annual trip to New York City, and can happily report that I enjoyed two very delicious vegetarian meals at two very different Latin American restaurants. 

My first meal was at Toloache, a bustling Mexican restaurant in the Theater District that also has locations in the West Village and the Upper East Side.  I was excited to try this restaurant because it offered a separate vegetarian menu.  And the food and service did not disappoint!  The traditional guacamole, served with chips and a tangy salsa, was addictive.  And my entree -- mushroom and cactus tacos -- was spicy and flavorful.  I ordered vegetarian black beans and rice on the side.

Toloache's tortilla chips, guacamole, and salsa

Toloache's mushroom and cactus tacos

According to Toloache's website, the owner and chef is a protege of Richard Sandoval, who owns many of my favorite restaurants in Washington, DC, so I should not have been surprised that the place was so accommodating of dietary restrictions (both the regular menu and the vegetarian menu also clearly identify gluten-free items).

My second meal was at Cuba, an aptly named Cuban restaurant in the Village.  Although not evident on the version posted on the restaurant's website, the menu clearly shows which items are vegetarian (and there are several options to choose from).  As usual when eating Cuban food, I opted to make a meal out of the traditional side dishes, filling up on black bean soup, white rice, yuca con mojo, sweet plantains, and salad.  I could not have been more satisfied, as the food rivaled that of Miami Beach and even Havana.  I did not bother to take a picture of these dishes, because this blog already displays several versions of this exact meal (see here and here, for example).  But in addition to the food, I really loved the atmosphere which apparently includes live music on weekends. 

Cuba restaurant in the Village (photo courtesy of the restaurant's website)

Toloache 50 Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato   

Cuba Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Dallas, Texas (Oct. 2015)

I've had a couple of stopovers in Dallas in recent years, and both times I ended up grabbing a quick meal at Iron Cactus, a Mexican grill and margarita bar in the heart of downtown.  

Iron Cactus is a local Texas chain, and I would not be surprised at all if there were other Mexican restaurants in Dallas that are more authentic, upscale, or vegetarian-friendly, but I've ended up at Iron Cactus largely because of convenience.  The restaurant is located right on Main Street, and offers a lively atmosphere with both indoor and outdoor seating.  

That said, I've been very pleased by the quality of the food and the service, and also by the restaurant's accommodation of many dietary restrictions (a separate gluten-free menu is available upon request, and also includes vegetarian options).  The homemade tortilla chips and fresh salsa were absolutely addictive, and my veggie enchiladas were not only delicious, but also unique in that they were prepared with charred tomato butter and sun-dried tomatoes.  The veggie option also came with meat-free black beans and rice on the side.  Veggie fajitas, guacamole, and few other options are also available.

Veggie enchiladas with black beans and rice

Iron Cactus Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Sunday, October 18, 2015

DC Spotlight: Three Very Different Asian Restaurants in Three Different Neighborhoods

Today's spotlight shines on three very different Asian restaurants in three different DC neighborhoods, where vegetarians and others with dietary restrictions can dine without stress.  

The first restaurant is Izakaya Seki, a small neighborhood Japanese restaurant near U Street.  A number of items are vegetarian or can be made vegetarian upon request.  I loved my assorted mushrooms, cucumber salad, and fried tofu.  The restaurant also has an extensive sake list.

Assorted mushrooms, cucumber salad, and fried tofu

The second restaurant is Rice, an elegant Thai restaurant on the 14th Street corridor.  The "Healthy Green" section of Rice's menu is entirely vegetarian, "meaning no fish sauce nor oyster sauce," according to the website.  I've eaten at Rice several times and always have left satisfied.  This (very spicy) sauteed basil tofu and mixed vegetables dish is one of my favorites (during the holidays, I also love to indulge in the pumpkin empanadas).
Sauteed basil tofu with mixed vegetables

The third restaurant is Mandu, a traditional yet modern Korean restaurant near Dupont Circle (with a second location near Mount Vernon Square).  A number of items on the menu are vegetarian or can be made vegetarian.  I loved my vegetarian bibim bap served in a hot stone bowl.

Bimbim bap, served in a host stone bowl with egg, veggies, tofu, and gochujang (spice chili and bean paste)

All three of these restaurants take dietary restrictions seriously.  In addition to the numerous, clearly marked vegetarian items, they also offer gluten-free items and are happy to modify dishes to accommodate food allergies and preferences. 

Izakaya Seki Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Rice Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

Mandu Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Hawaii -- Lahaina, Maui and Honolulu, Oahu

Vegetarians traveling to Hawaii won't have any problem finding nice restaurants where they can eat . . . so long as they don't mind eating Japanese food almost every day!  At least that was my experience.  While Japanese restaurants predominate, you can also find a number of other Asian-themed restaurants, and of course many Hawaiian restaurants, or fusion-type restaurants that serve some combination of Hawaiian and Asian cuisine.  American, Italian, Mexican, and other restaurants exist as well, but are in the minority.  

I did plenty of research before traveling to both Lahaina (in Maui) and Honolulu (in Oahu), and I really looked forward to checking out a number of upscale vegetarian-friendly restaurants.  Unfortunately, I acquired food poisoning on my second day (word of warning:  AVOID the vegetarian lunch option on certain snorkel-sail tours -- be safe and bring your own food!), so my ability to enjoy food during my vacation in Hawaii was severely limited.  

In Maui, for example, I had high hopes for Star Noodle and Lahaina Grill, which got great reviews, but I was unable to make it to either place.  Before the food poisoning, however, I did manage to have dinner at the very touristy Hula Grill on Ka'anapali Beach, which specializes in Hawaiian cuisine and offers a hearty tofu and vegetable entree, along with a number of meat-free appetizers, salads, soups, and side dishes (gluten-free items were clearly marked; the restaurant also has a Waikiki location, but with a different menu).  I was pleased to find the tofu option, especially at a restaurant so close to my hotel.  The restaurant also has nice outdoor seating overlooking the beach.  

Organic miso tofu and local vegetables with fresh herbs, rainbow quinoa, and soy-ginger vinaigrette

Before getting sick with food poisoning, I also managed to enjoy some casual quick eats at two places that appear popular with locals.  Choice Health Bar is a vegan cafe that is known for its acai bowls, smoothies, and fresh juices.  It also serves heartier dishes for lunch and dinner.  I stopped by for a healthy snack and enjoyed an acai bowl with gluten-free granola.

Acai bowl with acai, gluten-free granola, bananas, and honey

And Maui Tacos, a local fast food chain that is now a national franchise, is popular with surfers and celebrities.  The menu includes many vegetarian options, including the specialty taco pictured below.  Customers also can help themselves to all of the hot sauce they want from the Maui Tacos salsa bar . . . but only if they can stand the heat!

Maui Vegetarian Taco with "THE WORKS":  beans, rice, potatoes, fresh mix greens, tomato, and guacamole (vegan style without cheese or sour cream)

Once I started recovering from the food poisoning, I found my way to Japengo, an upscale pan-Asian restaurant that, like Hula Grill, overlooks Ka'anapali Beach and is walking distance to many hotels.  Although I was craving the stir-fried vegetables and tofu, I decided to go easy on my poor stomach and stick with veggie sushi rolls (note that Japengo also offers a separate gluten-free menu and has a Honolulu location, but the menu there is different).   

Veggie roll with avocado, cucumber, yamagobo, kaiware, and papaya in soy wrap

Fortunately, by the time I got to Honolulu, I was feeling much better, and so that is where I found my best meal: at Nobu in Waikiki.  Although Nobu is a world-renowned restaurant with locations all over the globe, this was my first experience dining there, and I could not have been more pleased.  The service, atmosphere, and food were all first-class, and the vegetarian options were abundant.  Chef Nobu Matsuhisa serves "new style" Japanese dishes that sometimes have a South American flare.  I absolutely loved my mushroom and tofu tobanyaki and vegetable sushi rolls!
Mushroom and tofu tobanyaki

Vegetable rolls

By my last day in Hawaii, I was a little tired of eating Asian food, so on my way to the airport I stopped and had lunch at Kan Zaman, a charming Middle Eastern restaurant (located in Chinatown, ironically) that has outdoor seating in a relaxing garden setting.  After a week of tofu and veggie rolls, my Moroccan salad and falafel mezze really hit the spot!

Moroccan salad and falafel
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