Japonais – Winter ’09 Restaurant Week

The Entrance to Japonais

The Entrance to Japonais

A version of this article was first published in The Student Voice, The King’s College, on January 29, 2009.

“What’s in a name?”

Does its name suggest whether a restaurant is a labor of love, solely a business venture, or a healthy balance of both? Does it sound hopelessly pretentious, or inviting? Evaluate the names of your favorite or most disliked restaurants for a minute, and see how the formula stacks up. I find it fitting, for example, that the name of Jackson Hole includes the word “hole.”

At Japonais, self-styled as contemporary Japanese cuisine and sushi combined with “European elegance,” it’s hard to tell exactly which of the two connotations drawn by its name—East and West—should lure customers into its stunning dining room.
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Curly’s Vegetarian Lunch

I am much too fond of the broader gastronomic spectrum to give up lobster ravioli forever or to settle for pretzels over a burger on a road trip. Vegan cuisine, for its limitations, is paradoxically blessed by them—limitations spur innovation, and innovation in the kitchen is never a poor attribute. Tofu and carrot sticks do not define this genre.

I, and a dedicated vegan friend, recently gave up reservations at Pure Food & Wine, an all raw, vegan paradise, on Irving Place, where dinner for two will make the lease payment on a Honda Accord. Our alternative venue was decidedly less upscale: Curly’s Vegetarian Lunch, a buzzing little vegan/vegetarian place on a block of 14th Street that is crammed with other narrow storefronts.

While cruelty-free may be a legitimate keyword in the kitchen at Curly’s, sliding into a dining room seat, however, can bring to mind a spacious chicken coop. But it is a complaint without consequence. Curly’s feeds people who eat a certain kind of food, and it is a haven for this often overlooked, and routinely extorted crowd.

The Birkenstockisms pervade at Curly’s, a self-proclaimed “Place for Vegetarians, Vegans and Sympathetic Omnivores.” On the menu, Suna Salad sandwiches, Crabfakes, and FauxPhilly Cheesesteaks evoke an exotic appeal. Vegan ham goes by “sham.” One begins to hope that they can do for lettuce what they do for lexicons.

Everything on the extensive menu is vegetarian by default, of course, and all dishes can be made vegan by request, with a twenty-five cent surcharge “to cover the goods.”

Get started with the Gravy Fries. Standard-issue french fries, served with vegan gravy, are nothing to scream about, but their goopy splendor is very comforting. The soy-based Buffalo Wings are very tasty, too, but, to be fair, what wouldn’t be after being breaded, deep-fried, and washed in hot sauce? They even come with house-made bleu cheese dressing, which is excellent and available on salads as the only non-vegan dressing. I would take these wings over the real ones any day. I’ve always hated the bones.

Dinner turns into a marathon when the entrées arrive. Huge plates sag with attractive, surprisingly hearty food.

A classic macaroni and cheese option, dubbed the Public School Lunch, can be had vegan (New School) or vegetarian (Old School). The Old School version is decadent, baked with four cheeses, a proper béchamel with a touch of nutmeg, and optional broccoli. The New School version substitutes vegan cheese and tofu, sounding just one steel cylinder away from being a soy bomb.

The wonderful meatless patty mix (burgers, etc.) includes textured vegetable protein, black beans, seeds, vegetables, onion, and garlic. Being conditioned by higher quality, medium rare burgers, I was initially disappointed by the drier, vegan version. It could just be a case of unreasonable expectations, because I acclimated quickly. The burger’s ciabatta roll never won me over, though. The flour-dusted roll, and its chewiness, were too fussy for too little reward.

If clearing the Public School Lunch were a marathon, the Baked Sesame Tofu could be the post-training protein blast. Grilled tofu steaks, with a patriotic grill flavor and tahini sauce, and rice and beans were fine and hearty. The included side salad, though, with mango, cucumber, and yogurt, was outstanding.

Many people eat a lot of meat. Too much, some say, although it’s nothing worth fighting about. If more delicious, well-priced vegetarian options were available, eating meatless from time to time would seem less radical and become easier to find. Curly’s makes eating meat-less feel like the status quo, instead of portraying their offerings as a luxury niche product.

This soft-populist philosophy is reflected in their prices. Lunch and dinner entrées range from $7.95 to $12.95. Wine and beer are available, but do not miss their sangria. A full dinner spread for two, including drinks and dessert, barely cracks $50, and $35-$40 for two is more likely. The service can be a hit or miss, depending on how crowded the place is, which can restrict the servers’ ability just to reach your table. I once saw a server sit down to scoot along the seat of an empty corner booth just so she could reach the kitchen. Every other path was blocked.

But doesn’t that make you want to love the place even more? ♦

Curly’s Vegetarian Lunch
328 E. 14th Street (between 1st & 2nd Avenues)
Weekdays 11:00 AM – 11:00 PM & Weekends 10:00 AM – 11:00 PM

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