It’s a brave new world for vegetables. Though my own meat-free days were short-lived, I once subsisted on the pabulum of veggie stir-fries and avocado sandwiches. Now, tattooed vegans Instagram photos of chard pancakes, and hotshot chef-authors such as Yotam Ottolenghi have shown home cooks how to sprinkle broiled eggplant with pomegranate seeds and not miss flesh one bit.
It’s puzzling that Burlington, home to droves of hipsters and conscious eaters, has been without a purely vegetarian restaurant for years — at least since the closure of Origanum Natural Foods more than a decade ago and the brief reign in 2008 of New Ethic Café on North Street. Creative vegetarian and vegan fare can still be found at omnivore establishments such as Stone Soup and Penny Cluse Café. But with Revolution Kitchen, which opened downtown this summer, veggie veterans Peter and Debra Maisel aim to bring meatless cuisine back to the scene.
For 17 years, the Maisels ran a cozy, colorful vegetarian restaurant (he cooked savory, she cooked sweet) called Luna 61 in the Hudson Valley. When their daughter, a University of Vermont grad, chose to settle in Burlington, the Maisels decided to head north, armed with a well-honed repertoire of vegetarian and vegan dishes. They leased a building on Center Street that has variously housed an Army-Navy store, a bubble-tea shop and a comedy club, and gamely capitalized on its rustic physical assets.
The Maisels accessorized the brick-walled, wood-floored venue with modern farm tables, sleek black chairs, industrial pendant lights, pots of feathery bamboo and a frosted, garage-door style front wall. The effect is graceful, sexy and serene; walking in for the first time felt like entering a food spa. Especially when the roguish host came out from behind the inviting L-shaped bar, draped himself over a stool and confided that there would be a short wait — so, would we like a drink?
The greeting was slightly theatrical, but beverages aren’t an afterthought here; beer and wines are well represented. Lost Nation Brewing’s floral Petit Ardennes, a Belgian-style ale, was on tap, and the kitchen had whipped up a batch of coral-colored watermelon-mango sangria. A few wines from the bottle list, including a dry rosé, were offered by the glass. Teetotalers could choose tart, unsweetened pomegranate iced tea or a lime spritzer.
A question that has gnawed at me since my meatless days drifted into my mind as we waited: Do vegetarians need to settle for less? Less technique, less finesse, less texture? Vegetables and grains can become stunning dishes in the hands of an experienced chef, yet they can also turn into limp, sad mashes. At Revolution, the smells of searing vegetables and grains wafted from the open kitchen. These were comforting scents for a hungry, nervous carnivore — after all, seared foods can satisfy any kind of eater, cruelty free or not.
Soon the results of all of this frying began arriving at our table in the form of small plates. Wafery, pan-fried wontons ($9), filled with silky tofu and dusted with black sesame seeds, were crisp and delicious, if a bit oily; they were blank canvases that needed the ginger dipping sauce to kick up their flavor.
The three other appetizers we ordered turned out to be identical-looking rolls. Each was sliced into four parts and served lengthwise, like a miniature landscape. One of the Maisels’ longstanding dishes is the Galaxy roll ($9), a warm tortilla tightly wound around sautéed portobello mushrooms, greens and mock Canadian bacon. It was smoky, succulent and sweet, but the ratio of tortilla to filling was slightly skewed in the wrong direction. The scallion pancake ($8) was out of balance, too: Rather than being served flat on a plate, it was a tortilla cinched around a vein of sautéed greens and scallions. If not for the warming chili dipping sauce that came with it, the pancake would have been somewhat flavorless.
Both of these were trumped by the otherworldly basil-and-mango-filled salad roll ($8), whose colorful, crisp contents peeked seductively from behind ghostly rice paper, and came with a peanut sauce so scrumptious I wanted to spoon it into my mouth. Following this was another triumph, the raw kale salad ($11). The chef had softened the ruffled kale deftly, sprinkling it with toasted pumpkin seeds for texture, dried cranberries for tartness and shavings of Pecorino cheese for saltiness; its complex, autumnal flavors held their delicate balance against the citrusy dressing. It was finger-lickin’ good.
Another salad we tried fell short of this harmony. Arcana Gardens greens topped with peaches, nasturtiums and crumbled chèvre ($12), though lovingly presented, seemed like a dish you might whip up at home. The vinegary dressing was too sharp, the peaches were too firm and the salad seemed like a collection of discordant parts.
And so it went. Each course had its hits and misses, and each offered fodder for conversation about the rigors and challenges of perfecting vegetarian food. As my friend tucked into jerk seitan ($17) — sauce-slathered cutlets served with mounds of velvety black beans, rice, salsa and greens — she held forth on the difficulties of marinating seitan and the rigors of a good jerk sauce. This one gripped the outside of the cutlets but didn’t seem to have penetrated far inside. The sauce was delicate, slightly sweet and redolent of allspice, but could have packed more heat and chutzpah.
I wimped out during my first visit, eschewing vegan house ravioli for a version stuffed with goat cheese and red peppers and bathed in a sage-butter sauce ($17). The pasta was meltingly tender and came with a crunchy, herbaceous shower of slivered sage and pulverized cashews. The plate itself was dry, and I soon realized why: All the sauce had soaked into the pasta, and each bite was like a butter-soaked pillow. It was my favorite dish by far, and probably the most fattening. I doubt I would be a thin vegetarian.
During my next visit to Revolution, I braved the vegetarian Reuben ($12). Though the grilled slabs of warm ciabatta were kissed with char, they were too thick and dwarfed the elements within: barely-there tempeh cutlets, Swiss cheese and a slithery tomato slice. Sauerkraut seemed to be missing — perhaps it had dissolved in the bread’s heat? I couldn’t tell.
I found salvation in a spoonful of my friend’s Thai massaman noodle bowl ($17), a special that night: perfectly cooked noodles with slivered mushrooms and zucchini and soft cubes of tofu, all blanketed with an aromatic, gentle, almost floral curry sauce.
Debra Maisel is a pastry queen, so no matter how full you are from Revolution’s savory dishes, dessert there is a must. Especially the banana cream pie, which our server told us Maisel had “spent 25 years perfecting.” It was hulking and bold: a dense, three-quarter-inch layer of mashed banana on a thin base of crumbled chocolate pastry, and a crown of feather-light whipped cream. Alongside a cup of bracing coffee, this dessert wouldn’t feel out of place at a greasy-spoon diner, duping truckers into thinking it’s less healthy than it really is.
A friend who was a vegetarian for 14 years and still eats meat sparingly recently told me, “The measure of a good vegetarian place is how well they can imitate meat. When a place does it really, really well, you never forget it.”
At Revolution Kitchen, I could easily do without the dishes that try to replicate meat — but I’m an omnivore. Chances are, the cruelty-free eaters among us will find something to love — and everyone can soak in the stylish décor.
Revolution Kitchen, 9 Center Street, Burlington, 448-3657. revolutionkitchen.com
The original print version of this article was headlined "Meatless Nights."