Healthy choices

Hunting for pleasurable vegetarian cuisine

At the gym last week, on a new elliptical torture device, I read one of those fitness success stories in a magazine. Let's put aside the fact that the magazine was Modern Maturity and that I was reading it with more interest than Details. The article was about a couple who undertook Bill Phillips' highly touted 12-week "Body for Life" plan. Like every other such plan, it's mainly a lot of exercise and motivational psychobabble disguising starvation. The couple lost a huge amount of weight and, of course, set about planning a second honeymoon and probably doubled their income and rejoined the church.

"I should be more disciplined," I thought. Then I came to a sentence at the end of the story that said something like: "Today, we treat all food as fuel for our bodies instead of something to give us pleasure."

Ugh. Visions of astronauts swilling Tang and squeezing protein from toothpaste tubes filled my head. I cannot imagine a life in which food has been reduced to medicine. Of course, restaurant food is notoriously unhealthy by and large. Even if you swear off fast food — which you should for its failure of taste alone — it's hard to dine in a restaurant and eat healthy. But I'm not giving up the pleasure of good food and the fun of dining.

As I reported last week, one of our city's healthiest and most creative restaurants, In the Shade Café, has closed, leaving a complete void in our city of really good American-style vegetarian cuisine. Chef Mike Elsen says he'll open his own restaurant eventually, but, in the meantime, Atlantans will be left to scour the menus of regular restaurants for healthy alternatives that taste good. There are other vegetarian restaurants in town, but almost without exception they either prepare recipes circa 1975 or subscribe to the belief that if it's good for you, it has to taste icky.

One surprising alternative is Watershed (406 Ponce de Leon Ave., Decatur, 404-378-4900). As I've written here before, Chef Scott Peacock is serving the city's best fried chicken there on Tuesday nights. If you're too healthy to eat that, by all means order the amazing vegetable plate with corn fritters ($13).

When Wayne, Rose D'Agostino and I recently visited — OK, we were there for chicken — we sampled the best fried okra I've ever tasted, along with flawless field peas, yellow squash with onions and garlicky green beans. There were also delicately cooked butter beans in a not-so-healthy cream sauce.

Peacock demonstrates that vegetables can be cooked quite satisfyingly in a straightforward manner without subjecting them to hocus-pocus. His menu also includes a delicious white bean hummus with crudités and homemade pita; an asparagus salad with Vidalia onion vinaigrette; and a chilled vegetable plate with gingered beets, blackeyed peas, cucumbers and red onions.

Asian cuisines of course offer the best choices for healthy cuisine. Recently, with a cold, I visited Sushi Avenue (308 W. Ponce de Leon, Decatur, 404-378-8448). Chef Kunio Ozama prepares very good (low-calorie) sushi here, including a tasty salmon-skin roll. But I was attracted to a bowl of richly flavored soup full of Udon noodles and vegetables. You can also order it with tempura shrimp (in a virtually autoclaved hot pot). This place has become exceedingly popular with Decatur folks.

Although there are better Thai restaurants in town, one of my favorite vegetarian dishes is at The King and I (1510 Piedmont Ave., 404-892-7743). My longtime favorite here is the Siam tofu — a very spicy blend of stir-fried vegetables and extra-firm tofu. (And if you like tofu, I remind you that 88 Tofu House, reviewed here recently, offers fiery-hot, mainly vegetarian soups. The lemongrass tofu at Bien Thuy is also delicious.)

For my money, the very best vegetarian food is at our city's South Indian restaurants. My favorite these days is Udipi Café (1850 Lawrenceville Hwy., Decatur, 404-325-1903) where I especially like the spring dosai and the best cauliflower I've ever eaten anywhere. I'm also fond of Chat Patti (1594 Woodcliff Drive, 404-633-5595). This little café, hidden on a street off Briarcliff near North Druid Hills, serves one of my favorite snacks: bhel puri. It's puffed rice with hot chilies and onions. It is made when you order it, so it is never soggy.

Right next door to Chat Patti is Queen of Sheebah, the city's best Ethiopian restaurant. You can scoop up deliciously seasoned lentils and other vegetarian goodies here with injera bread, though expect some interesting meat dishes, too.

For Middle Eastern vegetarian fare, I like Olive Bistro in Little Five Points (1099 Euclid Ave., 404-582-0029). A tiny shop with a pleasant patio, the restaurant serves killer falafel, hummus, babaganouj and one of the nicest grilled eggplant dishes in the city.

The lollapalooza of vegetarian menus is at Seeger's (111 W. Paces Ferry Road, 404-846-9779). Chef Guenter Seeger, the Euclid of cuisine, brings his precision and weirdly wonderful angles to a five-course, vegetable tasting menu at a cost of $58. A recent menu offered: tomato gelée with Heirloom Tomato salad, white tomato mousse and bottarga; chilled gazpacho with vegetable salad; potato gnocchi with moussseron mushroom; fresh goat cheese with gallberry honey and arugula salad; and fig tatin with vanilla and almond froth. Of course, the cheese and bottarga (sun-dried roe) mean it's not strictly vegetarian.

If you must have Americanized vegetarian, try Café Sunflower, with locations in Sandy Springs and Buckhead. R. Thomas does some interesting vegetarian and macrobiotic cuisine, too. But neither come close to the quality Elsen was cooking at In the Shade Café.

Contact Cliff Bostock at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or at grazer@mindspring.com.

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