Most of my vegetarian friends will do almost anything to avoid the family Thanksgiving. "Have some turkey, honey!" "Please, Mom, I'll be just fine with all these potatoes and yams and cranberries and green beans and ..." "Honey, it's just not Thanksgiving without turkey. You're gonna die of malnutrition if you don't eat something!"
Although personally I find it difficult to regard turkey as a genuine member of the animal kingdom (I've met cauliflowers with bigger brains), a gander at Valentine's alluring fowl-free Thanksgiving menu ($35 for four courses plus a midway lemongrass sorbet) reminded me that the best of the feast ain't the bird but the fixin's. So I fixed to get myself over there two Thursdays ahead to preview some of the festal dishes, since many are on the regular menu. (If all seatings have filled before you make your Thanksgiving reservations, you can have a similar feast any other night.) First I invited Chet. "Oh, I just ate there two days ago," he said. "The risotto was just marvelous -- and, oh, those desserts!" Then I called Danny the musician. "The little place at the end of Church Street? It's really good, but I've got gigs all this week." Two raves, no takers, but the third try was the charm -- photographer Pat and Webmistress Chris would join me while poor TJ writhed in bed with a bug.
Named for the owner's dog (whose portrait decorates the door, signboard, and menu), and with a new head chef on board since last spring, the comfortable storefront cafe seats about two dozen, with a few more tables outdoors in fair weather. Inside, ambient pop/jazz rang a bit too loud for easy table conversation. Most of the dishes are vegan; those containing eggs or dairy are double-asterisked on the menu, which changes seasonally. One appetizer (a vegan quesadilla) sports ersatz cheese and chorizo, but most of the current menu is free of flora trying to pass for fauna. Instead, the cooking draws international inspiration from various veggie-loving cuisines -- including old-time agricultural America.
Working on our order, we moistened the hearty house-baked bread from a cruet of wimpy yellow oil; it seemed to lack that magical ultravirginity that enables greener oils to tame unicorns and joust amain with puissant wheat breads. Dinner began with a big bowl of splendid soup ($4), featuring sliced butternut squash and black beans (discrete and succulent, not mashed and gluey) plus supporting veggie-tidbits. The light, intriguing broth was imbued with a subtle Indian-style spice mixture, redolent of coriander seed. Since Valentine's has a Bengali co-chef, we had to try samosas ($4.95), potato-filled pastry triangles. The filling tasted like Indian home cooking, moderately spicy and weightier than most local restaurant versions. Heavier yet, but less endearing, was a savory cheesecake of sweet potato and chevre ($7.95) with sage pesto and apple relish. "Hmm" and "Weird," said Chris and Pat. The cheese was so goaty, it tasted more like a product of Billy than Nanny, and it butted aside every other flavor in the composition, even the sprightly fruit salsa and "chilpotle-pecan crust." Nary a chile could we taste under Billy. In contrast, though, the disks of Southern-style fried green tomatoes ($5.95) nearly soared off the plate to become UFOs in food heaven. In this perfect autumnal appetizer, the last tomatoes plucked unripe from the dying vines were sweet-sour in an ethereal cornmeal batter.
With our appetizers we enjoyed glasses of a limestone-cool organic French chardonnay. The beer list is short and strange, but a respectable wine list ($14-32) represents numerous winemaking countries at reasonable markups (about 250 percent of retail), with most choices available by the glass for about $5. Wines are served in thick, squat jelly glasses, Parisian bistro style, as though to take them down a peg. (Real Parisian bistros probably use such glasses to obscure the aroma of the evil Algerian plonk they pour.) When we'd emptied our glasses, changing to a different wine (a Chilean sauvignon blanc) for the main course wasn't easy. Our server was evidently new, and also seemed sort of spacey. Bringing and serving the correct wine were vexing problems she couldn't solve until we were nearly done eating. When we asked the identity of the grains in the "four-grain risotto," after consulting the cooks she gave a breathless recitation of, seemingly, the cast of Carmen.
The risotto ($11.95) was a hearty, garlicky monolith, the size and shape of a standing brick, topped with a forest-green cap of tender, very garlicky Swiss chard. The four horsemen of the Risottolypse were weihani (light brown semipolished rice), amaranth, arborio ("Escamillo"), and Michaela (Don Jose's jilted sweetheart), mixed with shredded onion. The grains were lightly sweetened by a port wine demiglace, and encircled by plump, moist-firm rehydrated sun-dried tomatoes, smoky-sweet from grilling. We enjoyed a smooth, serene, slightly spicy Thai vegetable curry ($8.95), with broccoli florets, zucchini, chard, and rectangles of firm tofu in a rich coconut-lemongrass broth, with rice on the side. At first bite, Pat revealed her shocking secret -- she doesn't like cilantro! On the curry's third trip around the table, though, she dug in enthusiastically, now that the herb had cooked in the broth. "Despite the chard in everything," said Chris, "each dish is very distinct. Not like in a lot of veggie restaurants, where everything tastes the same, and you end up feeling like something's missing."
The evening's other two entrees will reappear on the Thanksgiving Day menu. Shaker bread pudding ($12.95) also wore a chard topknot, and resembled turkey dressing minus the drippings. Based on the house's muscular bread, it was sharpened with sage, glazed with cranberry, layered with bosky chanterelle mushrooms, and surrounded by rosettes of sybaritic whipped sweet potatoes. Unfortunately, the bottom was burned tough that night. And the roasted butternut squash terrine ($13.95), normally served over grilled pear hash, sprawled instead on a dull mess of cubed potatoes. A later phone call verified that the kitchen had simply run out of pears -- but the management should have slipped a note into the menu, reading, "In tonight's performance, the role of Madam Pearhash will be sung by Mr. Potato." Evidently, we'd hit Valentine's when the kitchen was having a bad pear day.
As soon as TJ recovered enough to eat, we had Dine-One-One deliver the same dish. Properly made, it was a treat -- luxurious mashed squash and sweet potatoes with the contrasting earthiness of red peppers, poised on grilled slices of sweet fruit, with a heaplet of intense portobello mushroom duxelles alongside. The suave pecan gravy tasted not like nuts but like -- like -- turkey gravy! A few potato cubes reappeared, sidelined now, wearing (of course) a fetching chard toupee. "It's a perfect Turkey Day dish, especially if you celebrate Turkeyless Day," said TJ. We also had a great entree that I first tasted in Tuscany (where it was called "beefsteak of mushroom"): a "scaloppine" of portobellos with piccata sauce ($13.95). The giant fungi were sliced thick and heaped up so you could cut off succulent hunks, and the rough-textured lemon sauce was sparked with salty capers. "Without their pretending to be meat, these mushrooms really do register on the palate like steak," said TJ. "If vegan cooking were always this good, I'd consider turning vegan." Alongside were big wedges of a wonderful, eccentric skillet-grilled polenta made with coarse-milled cornmeal. Piquant with sage and black pepper, and prettily scattered with parsley and specks of fresh red pepper, it was crusty along the edges, and moist inside with an engaging, chewy texture. "I like this better than the polenta you make," TJ dared to say.
Desserts ($4.95 each) were worth every calorie. Unmissable (and featured for Thanksgiving) is Mexican chocolate pudding cake -- an intense, coarse-textured chocolate gingerbread served warm with a rakishly spicy cinnamon sauce and a freshet of dark chocolate sauce. "It's luxurious but not too sweet," Chris observed. Fresh fruit crumble had a different spicy undertone, from crab apples (the turnips of the fruit world) mixed with normal apples. The rolled oat topping was more chewy than crispy after immersion in the juices. The 75-cent-extra accompanying scoop of Tahitian vanilla gelati (available separately as a chocolate-dripped sundae) was creamy and fresh, and also not oversweet. But "chocolate turtle torte" was very sweet indeed, with glossy dark chocolate frosting over layers of cake, walnuts, and caramel syrup. My accompanying espresso was mediocre and arrived lukewarm -- and when we asked for a doggie bag, our server conserved cardboard or energy by plopping all the entree orts into a single box, creating a heap of veggie-mush she labeled "Valentine's Combination Dinner."
Well, we liked and valued most of the food more than she seemed to. At its best, Valentine's cooking creatively exalts the natural flavors of the harvest without distorting them into vegan cultishness. And that's cause to give thanks.