“Shit!” exclaims a server. She had accidentally begun making a customer’s Bloody Mary with generic vodka, instead of Ketel One as they requested. “Don’t worry about it, they can’t tell the difference,” replies the bartender. She shrugs and stirs in tomato juice. While the diner was probably content with their drink and couldn’t detect the substitution, this unapologetic disregard for their true satisfaction would come to embody many of my experiences with Moosewood Restaurant.
Opened in 1973 in the Dewitt mall (a renovated school building), Moosewood has become a vegetarian Mecca. Known for a menu that changes daily and abundant use of local and organic produce, many liken the restaurant to an east coast Chez Panisse. In fact, Bon Apetit named it one of the 13 most influential restaurants of the 20th century.
Moosewood is run by a “collective” of 18 individuals—possibly because it is more efficient this way, possibly because no one person wants to take the fall for shoddy food. In any case, their brand has exploded over the past thirty years, and Moosewood has gone mainstream. Grocery stores now carry their salad dressings, all-organic refrigerated soups, and frozen entrees. The restaurant has published twelve cookbooks that have sold over 3 million copies. Moosewood cooks have appeared on TV and radio shows during book tours, and have participated in cooking demonstrations, chef trainings, vegetarian cooking classes, and book signings.
However, for all the attention given to this temple of vegetarian cuisine, upon eating at Moosewood one fact becomes unshakably clear: the food really isn’t that good.
The menu at Moosewood is divided into starters, salads, soups, and entrees.
Non-alcoholic drinks include Classic Ginger Tea (the liquid equivalent of sucking on raw ginger) and Raspberry Herbal Tea (which, as a fellow diner agreed, “doesn’t taste like much.”). Both were served with compostable paper straws; a nice touch, but no amount of tree hugging can make up for flavor.
Half of the starters are static and consist of items like marinated artichoke hearts, cottage cheese, low-fat plain yogurt, a fruit platter, and brown rice. During my visits, these were avoided entirely.
From the rotating appetizers side of the menu, a Salmon Cake was dubious. The dish was served mere moments after being ordered, indicating that it had been fried previously and was sitting in a warming tray. A barely lukewarm temperature confirmed this notion. A melon wedge and sliced tomatoes were strange garnishes, begging to be eaten, yet unattractively so. Sadly, even a flavorful lemon herb aioli could not save the day. Another appetizer, BBQ Tofu, was equally disappointing, crying out for salt, pepper, seasoning of any kind. A Bread (Ithaca Bakery) and Butter basket ordered for the table was an opportunity for simple greatness gone awry. The bread, served room temperature, could have been made revelatory from a quick warming. And rock hard tabs of butter? Come on, guys. Just because Moosewood was built in a renovated school doesn’t make cafeteria quality food acceptable.
Soups, an item Moosewood is especially lauded for, lacked in flavor and complexity. Corn Chowder initially tasted of corn but slowly faded into a bland afterthought. Similarly, Spicy Peanut Soup turned flavors of peanut butter and Tabasco into a goopy amalgamation.
Every entrée comes with a side salad, offering dressings like Miso-Ginger (watery), House (flavorless), and Lemon Tahini (the best of the three). Containing shaved carrot, sliced zucchini, and a single kalamata olive, the salads are palatable, but by no means live up to this Vegetable Palace’s hype.
Entrées are hit and miss. Lasagna is served piping hot with a tasty ricotta/mozzarella/Romano cheese combination. However, the noodles were overcooked to the point of mush, the béchamel sauce tastes of chalk, and tomatoes and spinach tucked inside add little. Stuffed Vegetables served on a bed of brown rice and pecans are borderline delicious, and the side of asparagus is perfectly cooked. Tilapia, though, is served with sweet potatoes sugary enough to be a dessert. While the Moosewood website refers to its food as “healthful,” which it very well is, it is no more “imaginative” than Olive Garden fare. When dining at Moosewood, I’d skip the entrées: playing Russian roulette with your main course just isn’t worth the $17 price tag.
Desserts are the most successfully executed items on the menu and at only $5, rarely disappoint. Jamaican Gingerbread, while dense as clay, is a flavorful cake (though what exactly is Jamaican about it remains a mystery) served with sliced apples and whipped cream. Apple cake has the same texture and flavors as banana bread, and is decadently moist. A chocolate mousse made with ricotta was thick enough to snap a plastic spoon, but rich and not too sweet. Blackberry Tiramasu was the best dessert tasted (ironically, it was also the one dessert our waiter tried to talk us out of ordering), a sweet and tart combination of blackberry compote, ladyfingers, and lemon cream.
You’d be better off saving yourself the time, the trek, and the tip, and heading over to Moosewood at Anabel Taylor. The soups are no better than at the flagship—Savannah Sweet Potato Bisque is terribly bland, Tuscan White Bean and Vegetable suffers from a fatal dousing of oregano—but the sandwiches are delicious and reasonably priced. A Hummus Pita combines hummus, alfalfa, spinach, tomato, and the salty kick of feta cheese. Simple, clean, and bright, this is what vegetarian cooking at Moosewood should be. The 2nd Avenue Rueben fills a whole-wheat pita with Russian coleslaw, BBQ seitan (a tofu alternative made from wheat gluten) and Swiss cheese. Though an aesthetically horrendous fusion of dull purple slaw and seitan that’s an unnatural shade of brown, the flavors blend nicely, hinting at a traditional Rueben. For dessert, don’t miss the Homemade Chocolate Cake, easily one of the best on Cornell’s campus. Moist, rich, not overly sweet, and covered in a decadent chocolate glaze, this cake puts the Vegan Chocolate Cake at Oakenshields to shame. Open Monday-Friday from 11 to 2, the café accepts BRBs.
Back at the Moosewood bar, I sat with a friend, chatting and nibbling on some forgettable dish. A server sheepishly approached the bartender, holding a bottle of white wine. “A customer asked if you could chill this,” he said. The bartender glared at him, snatched the bottle, and smashed it into a bucket of ice. My companion and I looked at each other and shrugged, unfazed. With food like this, it’s understandable for the staff to act like that.
My plea for Moosewood: get back to the food. Hold off on the retail soup line, t-shirts, cookbooks and whatever other branded crap is in the pipeline and return to making creative, flavorful, exciting vegetarian food. Until then, I’ll be content at Anabel Taylor.
Thursday, April 22, 2010
Today the Daily Sun ran a review I wrote of Moosewood Restaurant. Due to space limitations, my editor had to cut some of the review. Below is the original.