I do not think that I will surprise anyone who regularly reads this blog to know that I am an omnivore. Sometimes it feels more like a carnivore than an omnivore, but as I have gotten older and been exposed to fresh, in-season vegetables cooked properly, I have expanded my range of tastes exponentially since childhood. I have considered adopting a vegetarian diet on and off over the years and while there has been convincing evidence presented to me through friends, movies, and books to support this decision, I know that I could never become entirely 100% vegetarian or vegan because of one particular food: Bacon.
While I could set here and wax on endlessly about this bit of porcine goodness, the point of this particular blog post is to point out that when it comes to vegetarian options (or even more to the point, vegan) when dining out at a restaurant, often times the selection goes from bad to almost non-existent. I was recently talking with an old Stow friend of mine, Paul, who happened to fall somewhere between the vegan and vegetarian monikers and I thought it would be a nifty idea to go out to eat every so often at a restaurant that is either 100% vegetarian/vegan or has a sizable portion of the menu dedicated to this type of cuisine. I've always loved a good vegetarian/vegan meal when done correctly, but the problem that I have had in the past (as I'm sure many people who have already adopted this kind of diet) was that I never knew any good spots.
Thus, The Veggie-Vegan Project is officially born. As The Lenten Project was designed to highlight various churches and clubs serving the Lenten classic, fried fish, the purpose of The Veggie-Vegan Project will to highlight various restaurants in northeast Ohio where you might be able to get a good vegetarian or vegan meal. Initially, I'll be expecting to dine out at least once a month at a different restaurant, but if the project gains momentum, don't be surprised to see more than one posting per month.
Our inaugural dinner turned out to be at a little Chinese restaurant in Lakewood called Szechwan Garden. While the menu isn't 100% vegetarian, looking over the menu on-line, I realized that the non-meat dishes that were being offered sounded very tasty and even somewhat authentic. Szechwan Garden was located at the corner of Detroit and Giel, specifically at 13800 Detroit Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44107 and can be reached at 216-226-1987. Parking was in the small lot directly surrounding the building or on Giel.
Here was a shot of the marquee at the front of the building:
One inside, I joined my dining companions for the evening, Paul and his partner Eric. The nice thing about Szechwan Garden's menu was that they completely separated out the meat portion of the menu from the "Zen" portion. Since these posts will be focused on the vegetarian options at a restaurant, I've only included the Zen portion.
I suppose it wouldn't be a proper visit to an Americanized Chinese restaurant without the obligatory photograph of the hot mustard and sweet and sour dipping sauces at our table:
I didn't try the sweet and sour sauce today, but the Chinese hot mustard sauce was pretty much on par with every other Chinese restaurant at which I've ever eaten. Tonight we decided to start with what would appear to by somewhat oxymoronic, the crispy fried chicken:
This was actually a wooden dowel rod with some of the Zen "chicken" on it and wrapped in a yuba bean curd skin before being fried. Taking on the appearance of a chicken leg (or drumette if you prefer chicken wings), the little meatless morsels had a very interesting crunchy outside and a slightly spongy, but not offensive chewy inside. While of course it didn't TASTE like chicken, the playfulness of the dish and the nicely fried yuba skin made this a very enjoyable way to start out dinner tonight. I paired my portion with some of the hot mustard and managed to clear my sinuses in addition to filling my stomach.
The other appetizer we chose to split was the Peanut Sesame Noodles:
I was a bit surprised that the noodles (which were below the peanut sauce in the above photograph) did not come dressed. Fortunately, with the two spoons provided, it took me all of about three minutes to carefully toss the noodles on the plate until they were evenly coated. I had asked Paul at one point if he thought that the Zen menu was not just vegetarian, but also vegan. He was tempted to say yes until he saw the yellowness of the noodles in this dish and I think we both agreed that eggs had been in the list of ingredients. Regardless, this dish was excellent. The peanut sauce was nicely balanced and seasoned properly and the only real complaint I had was that the ratio of sauce to noodles was a bit high and the sauced noodles were a bit "gloppy."
For dinner, we decided to go with family style service and each person ordered an entrée that appealed to himself, although there was certainly discussion among the three of us so that there wasn't any overlap. Fortunately, as our server started bringing plates to the table, he dropped off a very large bowl of steamed white rice to share:
Rice now accounted for, we moved onto the main courses. First up was the General Tso's Zen Chicken:
I suppose to be a truly fair comparison, we should've ordered the regular General Tso's Chicken to make sure that the flavors (other than the chicken, obviously) were the same. While this was a good dish, the sauce was unlike any other General Tso's sauce that I've tasted. Nodding to the fact that this dish is more of an Americanized Chinese dish, I was missing the flavors that made it a classic: spiciness, sweetness, and tanginess. The Zen chicken, while it was clearly visually not chicken, had a texture to it that somewhat reminded me of chicken meat. As Paul and Eric both noted (as they've had this dish before), the sauce was rather flat and uninspired today.
Next up was a dish whose menu description I found particularly delightful, the Vegetarian Peking Pan-Fried Noodles:
The description on the menu waxes on beautifully about this dish: "A riveting combination of vegetables nestled in quasi-crispy pan-fried noodles." In fact, many of the dishes on the Zen menu have this flowery, over-the-top quality to them and that actually made the menu kind of fun to read. Our second noodle dish of the night, Szechwan Garden's version of this Chinese classic consisted of a bed of noodles that had been boiled and then pan-fried in the wok. A healthy topping of stir-fried vegetables and a rich brown sauce completed the dish. Flavors were good and seasoning was spot on. The crispiness from some of the noodles and the vegetables balanced nicely with the creamy sauce and the softness of the non-fried noodles.
Our third, and final, entrée for the evening was probably my favorite of the evening, Eggplant in Hot Garlic Sauce:
We had asked for this dish to be prepared spicy and while it didn't have a blow-your-head-off kind of chili heat to it, I would consider it to be medium. The combination of the slightly sweet and tender eggplant and the slightly pungent garlic sauce were a match made in heaven. There were other vegetables in the mix as well such as green peppers, carrots, and water chestnuts, but truly the eggplant was the star of this dish. Between this dish and the Sesame Peanut Noodles, I was a completely happy man.
While there were only three of us tonight, the amount of food we ordered could've easily fed four as we had a considerable number of takeout containers that left the restaurant with us. Including tax and tip, tonight's meal was $20 per person. Some of the dishes I could take or leave, such as the General Tso's Zen Chicken, but there was also plenty that I found tasty and delicious. I don't know that I would ever crave a chicken meat substitute and there was much discussion at our table tonight about whether that belonged in a proper vegetarian/vegan diet, but I will say that the purely vegetable dishes tonight were quite rockin' and I highly suggest you give them a try the next time you are in the mood for a vegetarian meal.
I'm glad that the inaugural meal at Szechwan Garden of The Veggie-Vegan Project went so well tonight and I'm looking forward to next month's installment, wherever that happens to be. If you are interested in joining us, gentle reader, simply send me an email and let me know.