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Sunday, October 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 41.0° F  Fair
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Madison's best vegetarian dishes in non-veg restaurants
Let them eat meat. You have options!
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Credit:Chris Hynes

There are many compelling reasons to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet, but one of the most pressing is the impact of large-scale meat production on our environment. Several well-respected food writers and activists, most notably Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food) and Mark Bittman (The Food Matters Cookbook and How to Cook Everything), have urged Americans to move meat away from its starring role at the center of the dinner plate and into a supporting role as a flavorful additive to vegetables, grains and other proteins (if you eat it at all). Bittman, in fact, recently ended his extremely popular New York Times cooking column to focus on writing about, among other things, the need to reduce our meat consumption for the health of the planet ("The Minimalist Makes His Exit," Jan. 25, The New York Times).

As Bittman said in that column, he has a "growing conviction that the meat-heavy American diet and our increasing dependence on prepared and processed foods is detrimental not only to our personal health but [that of] the planet." Pollan puts it even more succinctly: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

When it comes to food, however, my two cents is that knowing what we should be doing is all well and good, but it won't come to anything if we can't find a way to savor the food we "should" be eating. Eating, after all, is one of our prime sensual experiences and a primal way of connecting to the world we live in. Perhaps this is why my college-era attempts at vegetarianism and veganism were rather short-lived.

At the time, I didn't know how to cook much other than tuna noodle casserole and chocolate chip cookies, and I was an unadventurous eater to the point that eating vegan in a restaurant meant I lived off French fries and boring salads. No wonder my vegan period only lasted a month. I felt good about the ethics of my food choices, but it made me sad to lose the joy of eating.

Fortunately, the offerings for meat-free fare in Madison are wonderful indeed. We may have only one restaurant, the Green Owl, devoted exclusively to vegetarian and vegan dishes, but there are numerous great no-meat plates around town.

Whether you are a current vegetarian looking for something new or a carnivore who wants to make intelligent food choices while still enjoying every bite, I recommend trying these dishes. You won't miss the meat, and you may just find yourself some favorite new dining spots.

Huevos Divorciados
at Cilantro Bar and Grill

I was never a "sauce over eggs" person until I tried the huevos divorciados at west-side gem Cilantro. Now, even with all the other delicious options, I find it hard not to order this every time. It's a lovely dish to look at: two eggs poached on a homemade corn tortilla, one side of the plate draped in a bright red roasted tomato sauce, the other in a green tomatillo sauce. A stripe of black beans sprinkled with queso fresco divides the plate, while generous chunks of caramelized plantain and zucchini dot its edge.

The name, "divorced eggs," is ironic given how beautifully the dish marries flavors: the richness of egg yolk; silky, tart tomatillo sauce; and smooth, smoky roasted tomato. Add a mug of Mexican hot chocolate and you've got yourself one happy brunch.

Squash Curry
at Lao Laan-Xang

Squash curry is duly worshiped on the near-east side, as its lucky residents live within easy distance of both Lao Laan-Xang locations. It's time to share the love. This is a great dish for people who think they don't like Southeast Asian food (as well as those who admit to a passion for it). Chunks of orange butternut and green zucchini adorn the slightly sweet, coral-colored sauce, to which you can add a protein - tofu is the vegetarian choice, but meat eaters can choose from shrimp, beef or chicken.

The dish can be made as mild or as spicy as you like, another reason it's good for those gingerly dipping a toe into this style of cooking. Witness the line at the Lao Laan-Xang stand at the Orton Park Festival every summer, and you'll see that this dish has lots of fans.

Piccolo Fritto
at Sardine

I don't know of a more devilish way to get your daily serving of vegetables than this one. Sardine takes a different mixture of vegetables each day, tempura-batters and fries them, and serves them with aioli (garlic mayonnaise). The result is mouthwatering. On a given day the piccolo fritto might include cauliflower, tomatoes, carrots, zucchini, fennel (my favorite) or other vegetables. You can't go wrong.

Allegra Pizza
at Café Porta Alba

If you love the earthy taste of mushrooms, the naughty-but-nice Allegra was made for you. The soft, charred, naked crust glistens with truffle oil and smears of mascarpone, topped with seared mushrooms. It's simple and ever so satisfying. With this much flavor, meat will never even cross your mind.

Lunch Buffet
at Maharaja

It's a bit of a cheat to include a buffet, but it's a good cheat. Maharaja's lunch buffet is one of the most popular in town, and its reputation is well deserved. There's a little bit of everything, varying from day to day. There could be a creamy vegetable korma, chana masala (chickpeas in a tomato-based sauce), mutter paneer (my favorite - mild white cheese and peas in a creamy tomato sauce), or aloo gobhi (cauliflower and potatoes with tomatoes and other vegetables).

It's a great way to sample a whole lot of new stuff at once, and things are served mild on the buffet, making it a good way to ease your way into Indian food if you've never had it before. Then there are the golden-fried vegetable pakora (fritters) and, when you get back to your table with your loaded plate, a basket of piping-hot naan. What more could you want? Oh, right - finish it off with a helping of rice pudding, mango ice cream or any of a number of other sweet touches.

Vegetarian Combos
at Shish Café

Shish Café is my favorite Middle Eastern restaurant in town, yet I continually run into people who have never heard of it. So consider this a shout from the rooftops: This place is wonderful. When I go there, I fall into an old habit of ordering the same thing. I just can't help myself. The "vegetarian combo I" is a sampler of Middle Eastern staples: falafel, hummus, baba ghanouj, tabouli and grape leaves.

Each element is done perfectly: The falafel is tender and light with a crispy exterior, the best I've tasted outside Egypt, and the hummus and baba ghanouj vie for my attention as I attack with a serving of freshly baked pita bread. On the rare occasions when I force myself out of my happy rut, I'll order the "vegetarian combo II," which has an equally good collection of lesser-known staples: mouhamara, a roasted red pepper and walnut puree; iggie, herby fried squash patties; spinach borek, a cousin of spanokopita; and hummus. I always start the meal with a cup of adas, a crushed-lentil soup.

#20 Salad
at the Old Fashioned

Pardon me while I gripe. I haven't actually had a chance to eat this salad for a long time, given the Old Fashioned's incredible popularity and always-packed house. But I often think of it longingly. The #20, a generously sized salad, combines juicy Door County cherries with toasted almonds and a buttermilk and blue cheese dressing for a salad that has plenty of everything: sweet, tart, crunchy and cool elements.

The Old Fashioned has recently expanded, so maybe I'll have better luck next time I try to get a table. When I do, you can bet this is going to be what's sitting on it.

Vegetable Board
at Underground Kitchen

You've no doubt heard of a cheese board, but Underground Kitchen has the first veggie board I've tried. Like everything at Kitchen, it conveys the playfulness and passion of its chefs, and its contents are ever-changing (save for the excellent Madison Sourdough bread that comes with it). Recently the board had a carrot terrine, a coarse pesto hopped up with marjoram, a chickpea salad, a vegan sprouted-lentil "cheese" and a kale-wrapped dolma stuffed with yogurt cheese and wheat berries flavored by preserved lemons and olives. Capped off with a sensational honey-walnut-rosemary ice cream, the meal left me applauding the restaurant's creativity.

Coconut Tofu
at Dobhan

Dobhan's coconut tofu could win the heart of even a diehard tofu hater. In my experience, people who don't like tofu complain about two things: texture and blandness. This dish proves that neither is an issue when tofu's done right. Large cubes of silken tofu are coated in crispy coconut, creating a mouthwatering contrast between crunchy and melt-in-your-mouth. Sautéed bell peppers add color and a gentle crunch. One bite of tofu in that Easter-egg-yellow coconut-milk sauce, and you'll be a believer too.

Truffled Risotto
at La Brioche True Food

True Food's rendition of this classic is a stunner. Liberally dosed with porcini and shiitake mushrooms, the risotto is robustly flavored with truffle oil. Even my dining companion, an avowed mushroom hater, agreed that it was fabulous. The risotto is served as a small plate, so you can double it up for an entrée or pair it with one of True Food's decadent salads. A poached pear panzanella made with croissant croutons, blue cheese, red onions, watercress and balsamic vinaigrette, maybe?

Grilled Cheese
at Marigold Kitchen and Lazy Jane's

Grilled cheese, in my opinion, is one of the best foods known to man, but even I did not know how good it could be until I tasted versions that took it a bit out on a limb. Marigold's grilled cheese pairs Hook's aged cheddar with the tang of goat cheese for added brightness and a silky texture. Rosemary bread and tomatoes add another layer of flavor. Lazy Jane's uses Havarti, avocado and red onion in their version. Both sandwiches should open the eyes of those who still think of grilled cheese as child's play.

Hall of Fame:
Himal Chuli

Himal Chuli is well loved by almost everyone in town who eats vegetarian, so its inclusion here will surprise no one. However, I know there are some of you out there who haven't yet had the pleasure, and even for those of us who already love it, a homage is in order. Of all the people I polled for this article about favorite vegetarian dishes, the majority mentioned something at Himal Chuli.

The biggest vote-getter was the combination plate: two momochas (peanutty steamed vegetable dumplings served with tomato-coriander sauce), one samosa (a fried potato and pea dumpling), roti (freshly griddled flatbread), and a cup of dal (a soul-nourishing mixed-bean soup). It's basically the restaurant's greatest hits on a plate.

The other favorite was the rice, tarkari and dal combo. Tarkari is a general name for a vegetable stew, and Himal Chuli makes two kinds of tarkari every day. Most beloved are the squash tarkari ("I love it so much I ate it twice in one day," said one person I polled) and the cauli tarkari (cauliflower, carrots, potatoes and peas). Cauli is served almost every day. It's so good that it inspired me to buy a Nepali cookbook so I could make it at home (not quite as well as Himal Chuli does, I should add).

Throw in a homey atmosphere and warm staff, and it's easy to understand why Himal Chuli is Madison's most revered destination for great vegetarian cooking.

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