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Boston’s Vegan, Vegetarian and Raw Restaurants
Please All Palates
by Andrea Pyenson

By many popular standards, greater Boston’s restaurant scene is hot. From appearances on popular cooking shows to high national rankings, our chefs, their restaurants and individual dishes have put our region on the culinary map. Thanks to them—and to diners who increasingly care about what they eat, where it comes from and its effects on their bodies and the environment, our local cuisine is no longer defined by Yankee pot roast, baked beans and clam chowder. Lots of times it doesn’t even involve animals. Or cooking.

As the general restaurant community has been gaining prestige, its vegetarian, vegan and raw segment has been experiencing parallel growth. In the last 18 months, a vegan pizzeria, high-end vegan restaurant, raw vegan and second location of a much-loved, established vegetarian restaurant have opened in and around Boston. According to Evelyn Kimber, president of the Boston Vegetarian Society, there has been a “great burgeoning of interest in vegetarianism” in this area in recent years. “There’s much greater availability of vegetarian and vegan options on restaurant menus,” she says. (In the simplest terms, vegetarians do not eat animal flesh; vegans do not use or consume animal products of any kind.)

Eric Prescott, co-founder and director of the Boston Vegan Association, relocated from California three years ago. “It’s a pretty adventurous town as far as food,” he says of his adopted home.

In October 2009, Prescott opened Peace o’ Pie, a vegan gourmet pizzeria, with chefMiguel Danielson. The restaurant earns high praise for the food. Not unusually, as it turns out, more than half of the customers are neither vegetarian nor vegan. “People [come] because they want to eat more sustainably, and they’ve heard vegan is the way to go,” he says. “Some people just like the fact that our food is organic.”

“You have to appeal beyond the core demographic,” he continues. So the menu offers familiar-sounding items, like “The Hawaiian— Canadian bacon, organic pineapple chunks” and “The Fresh—dollops o’ pesto and cheese topped with broccoli, onion and roasted garlic.” The cheese, though, contains no dairy, and the bacon does not come from a pig. This approach is common for less mainstream restaurants trying to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.

Prana is a bright spot on an otherwise dull corner of Newton, with a colorful dining room, floor-to-ceiling windows and a cozy corner for kids to play. Owners Taylor and Philippe Wells, who own the Prana yoga studio two doors down, opened their raw vegan restaurant in September 2009 as a service to their yoga community (they own two other studios, in Cambridge and Winchester) and “so we’d have a place to eat,” explains Taylor. Menu items sound familiar—burritos, burgers, pizza, lasagna, creamy chocolate pudding—but there are no animal products used, and nothing is heated to more than 112 degrees, as raw food adherents believe cooking at higher temperatures destroys food’s nutrients and enzymes.

“We don’t talk a lot about ‘raw’ or ‘vegan’ to people on the street because it can freak them out,” says Taylor, who adopted the lifestyle with her husband six years ago. “We don’t want to convince people through fear,” Philippe adds. The couple is eager for a wide audience to frequent their restaurant, and enjoy it for food that Taylor describes as “super-yummy, delicious.”

Prana’s customer base is a blend of raw foodists, vegans and, in the couple’s words, “regular eaters.” Philippe says he finds the term “raw” misleading, preferring to think of the cuisine as one option among many. When it comes to raw food, people “think they have to do all or nothing,” he says. It’s not the case. In his words, the food is, simply, “as fresh as possible, with minimal processing.” Everything at Prana is organic, made in-house the day it is served, and the owners source much of their produce from local farms.

Open since late 1999, Rawbert’s Organic Garden in Beverly is at “the cutting edge of nutrition, where nutrition and sustainability meet,” according to owner Robert Reid.While the menu here is made up primarily of gourmet raw foods, it has expanded over the years to include hot soups and other “transitional items that help widen our appeal,” Reid says.

Now in his mid-40s, Reid adopted a raw diet about 15 years ago, after his sister-in-law was diagnosed with terminal cancer, learning about it while researching her disease. He has since shifted to one that is 80% to 100% raw because, he says, he was feeling “a little bit challenged in the fall health-wise.” He began eating warming grains and seaweed soups, but says, “If I eat too much cooked food I won’t feel as vibrant and energetic.”

The restaurant’s menu has evolved along with Reid’s diet, both of which he describes as macrobiotic—seasonal, local, using unprocessed whole foods and whole grains. By adding soups and items like “Nut Butter ‘Squash’ Ravioli,” with raw beet shell raviolis; and pizzas made on a crust of dehydrated sprouted buckwheat, carrot or flax, all heated under a food lamp, Reid says he wants customers to perceive Organic Garden as having “warm and comforting food.” But he emphasizes that “everything we make tastes great totally raw.”

For the warm foods, cooks use the heat lamp similarly to a broiler, bringing the raw food up to about 130°. At that temperature, Reid explains, there is some destruction of enzymes on the top layer, but the food is 80% to 90% raw, and it tastes like it just came out of the oven.  He is also making the menu more seasonal. For the fall/winter menu, he is removing all tropical fruits except bananas and adding more root vegetables, which have to be cooked.

In the last several months Jason Long, who was the store manager until his recent move out of state, was largely responsible for establishing relationships between the restaurant and nearby farms. One of them, First Light Farm in Hamilton, built a hoop house to grow greens and root vegetables that it will supply to Organic Garden through the winter. The farm previously did business only as a CSA. Last summer, Long was also the face of Organic Garden at the Salem and Beverly Farmers Markets. Though that resulted in more restaurant traffic, for him “it’s about being in the community,” he says.

Life Alive, which has had a cult following since it opened in Lowell’s historic downtown arts district six years ago, now has a sibling in Cambridge’s Central Square. Owner Heidi Feinstein, an expressive arts therapist, nutritionist and massage therapist, says she started the first restaurant, serving fresh, organic, wholesome foods—with no meat—because “People needed a place to go that was about pleasure and wellness.”

With no related experience or culinary training, Feinstein developed every recipe on the menu, which she says is based on macrobiotics.  Meals are “therapeutic; each one is complete. The body gets everything it needs, so your body is naturally satisfied,” she says.

The food is delicious and enticing, as are the restaurants themselves—both richly hued, comfy spaces. “I want it to look like you’re stepping into your house,” Feinstein says. And it does. Or maybe like your funky friend’s colorful cottage with mismatched furniture that goes together perfectly. The combination keeps people coming back.  Feinstein uses only premium ingredients, including local, organic vegetables whenever possible. Everything is “thoughtfully put in for nutrient value but also flavor,” she says.

In the beginning, Feinstein used to change the menu seasonally, but she stopped because customers missed their favorite items. “I believe we could be the next McDonald’s,” she says. “This is quick service, with love. The Goddess [the signature dish] is our BigMac.” Maybe—if Big Macs had carrots, beets, broccoli, dark greens and tofu over short-grain brown rice, topped with ginger Nama Shoyu sauce.

The 39-year-old mother of a 1-year-old daughter, Feinstein gets upset when people refer to Life Alive as a vegetarian restaurant. “It’s comfort food,” she says. “Ninety percent of our customers aren’t vegetarian or vegan or health conscious.” Nor is she (though she only eats humanely raised, grass-fed meat). She doesn’t serve meat because “our meals are so satisfying without [it]. It’s a great choice for people.” This open attitude, she believes, allows people to feel comfortable in her restaurants. And she finds that once people start eating food that’s good for them, they eat less food that’s not.

In addition to running Life Alive, Feinstein offers cooking classes and workshops on pleasure, health and wellness. She plans to open more locations, and hopes to start a garden—or even buy a farm—to provide produce for the restaurants.

In relative terms, Red Lentil is practically mainstream. But don’t be fooled by the simple storefront with kiwi-colored walls on a main thoroughfare in Watertown. Chef-owner Pankaj Pradhan is a classically trained chef from India who has worked all over the world and mastered multiple cuisines. A lifelong vegetarian who spent years cooking nonvegetarian food, he finally became “sick of doing not what I wanted to do,” and left a position in New York to become head chef at the vegetarian Garden Grille Café in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

Eight years later Pradhan moved to Massachusetts to open Red Lentil, choosing Watertown because he “got a good vibe.” He opened in September 2009, “in a bad economy,” he concedes. “People were laughing at me.” But it appears to have been the right move at the right time.

The chef describes Red Lentil’s food as “contemporary fusion vegan vegetarian.” He changes the menu twice a year to reflect the seasons, with daily specials, and buys produce from farms in New Bedford and sometimes Maine. His ideas for dishes come from his vast experience and, he says, from “trying new food every day. That’s how I learned— by hit or miss.”

Like most other restaurants in its broad category, Red Lentil’s customer base is no more than 50% vegetarian. “They’re just trying to be healthy,” Pradhan says. That Gobi Manchurian, a gluten-free vegan appetizer of chickpea flour–coated, fried cauliflower tossed with Indian seasonings, has become the restaurant’s signature dish probably owes more to its irresistible taste and texture than its nutritional profile.

The fact that everybody from vegans to omnivores can enjoy it is a bonus. Other offerings, from Sweet Potato Quesadilla to Spiced- Lentil-Nut Patties with Indian spices to Moussaka Pizza, reflect the chef ’s many influences.

Pradhan notes that all of the desserts, made by the restaurant’s pastry chef and sweetened with maple syrup or agave nectar, are vegan, because vegetarians can eat vegan dessert, but vegans won’t eat vegetarian offerings.

The newest vegan restaurant on the scene, True Bistro, opened in late fall 2010. Co-owner Linda Harrison, an architect, says she opened the 29-seat spot in Teele Square, Somerville, with her husband, Michael, because she wanted a place to eat. Linda has been vegan for five years, and was vegetarian for several years before that. Michael eats fish at restaurants, but otherwise follows a mostly vegan diet. “I don’t think that in this economy I would have opened a ‘regular’ restaurant,” she continues. “But I feel there’s a niche that needs to be filled.”

With a menu its owner describes as “upscale,” True Bistro serves lunch and offers white-tablecloth service at dinner. Linda says it is a place where “vegans can bring nonvegan friends and everyone can have a really nice meal.” She hopes nonvegan diners will find that “you’re not sacrificing anything to come here.” The chef, Stuart Reiter, has more than 10 years experience working in vegetarian restaurants, including the acclaimed Greens, Millennium and Roxanne’s in San Francisco—and an even longer personal commitment. The sous chef, Giles Siddon, was the lone vegan in his classical culinary school. He too worked at Millennium, as well as Clio, in Boston.

In most major cities, Linda Harrison and others in this piece note, there are at least one or two really good vegan restaurants.With its wellrounded mix of nonmeat options, the Boston area now has a lot more than that.

Andrea Pyenson writes about food and travel. Her work has appeared in several print and online publications, including the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Fine Cooking, msn.com and oneforthetable.com. Andrea can be reached at apyenson@gmail.com.

Life Alive
765 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
617-354-5433
194 Middle Street
Lowell, MA 01852
978-453-1311
www.livealive.com

Peace o’ Pie
487 Cambridge Street
Allston, MA 02135
617-787-9884
www.peaceopie.com

Prana Café
292 Centre Street
Newton, MA 02458
617-527-7726
www.pranaraw.com

Rawbert’s Organic Garden Café
294 Cabot Street
Beverly, MA 01915
978-922-0004
www.organicgardencafe.com

Red Lentil
600 Mount Auburn Street
Watertown, MA 02472
617-972-9188
www.theredlentil.com

True Bistro
1153 Broadway
Somerville, MA 02144
617-627-9000
www.truebistroboston.com