Veg-friendly Tacoma. That’s a questionable notion for plant-based eaters facing a dearth of fine dining restaurants in Tacoma that take the meat out of the menu.
That’s not to say vegetarian eating can’t be found here. Tacoma’s Quickie Too and Caffe Dei cater to that eating style on a casual level, and myriad restaurants list streamlined choices for non-meat eaters. But fine dining vegan or vegetarian with extensive menus? Not in Tacoma.
While neither is fully vegetarian or vegan, two new restaurants offer deeper choices for high-end veg dining than I’ve ever seen in Tacoma.
MARROW KITCHEN BAR
Pretty dining room, a prime corner in the popular Sixth Avenue eating district and a chef with a penchant for layering flavors and textures – Marrow Kitchen Bar is trying something unusual for Tacoma. So far? I like it. The restaurant was opened Aug. 2 by Jaime Kay Jones and husband Jason Jones, who in 2007 opened Top of Tacoma, a popular McKinley neighborhood lounge. In the kitchen at Marrow is co-owner Kyle Wnuk, who until recently was chef of Dirty Oscar’s Annex, also on Sixth.
While half of the menu is devoted to meat-eaters (more on that in a bit), the restaurant serves double duty with a menu of vegetarian creations with sophisticated flare and not a morsel of tofu or gimmicky meat substitute in sight. In a play on words, the meat side of the menu is Marrow, named after the restaurant’s signature bone marrow dish, and the vegetarian side is Arrow, as in “straight as an arrow and meatless,” as Jones described it.
Wnuk has created a vegetarian menu that leans on grains and legumes: French lentils, the grain farro, and red and white quinoa dressed with fresh herbs, pungent cheeses and unusual vegetables such as baby romanesco, a green cauliflower hybrid that looks like something hipster space aliens would revere. This is elevated eating, and served with style on linen-dressed tables with sturdy flatware and cucumber-kissed water in a modern dining room decorated with funky glass bottle artwork, swinging exposed light-bulb pendants and melodic beat music pulsing in the background. The look is smart, the menu thoughtful, the flavors and textures varied. My only request? Turn on the air conditioning. On a balmy night, the dining room is sweat-inducing.
The meat portion of the menu offered a few unusual items that Tacoma diners have not seen much collected in one setting – duck, oxtail and escargot, for starters. I sampled only one item from the meat menu – braised oxtail ($15) popped with brazen meaty flavor, slow cooked with slippery wisps of sweet onions, an accompanying bone jiggling with piping hot marrow fortified with garlic and basil that tasted unctuously fatty (an acquired taste, at least for me).
Enough with the meat. It was the vegetarian menu that commanded my attention, if only because I know and frequently hear from diners in search of vegetarian options, and I struggle with the short list of options. I’ll come back later to write more about Marrow’s meat-focused menu, but for now, I’m delving into the veg-friendly side.
A seasonal menu of salads, starters and entrees – eleven choices in all, not counting the vegetarian-friendly dessert list. Wnuk said his kitchen isn’t large enough to maintain two separate cooking lines, but he keeps pans, utensils and grill space separate. The deep fryer is dedicated for vegetarian items only. Can the menu turn vegan, meaning absolutely only plant-based ingredients, hold the dairy? Some dishes can, said Wnuk. Just ask your server.
Is the concept working? So far, so good, said Wnuk, a committed omnivore. He said diners split 50-50 on ordering vegetarian or meat entrees and he’s sure meat eaters are crossing over into veg-territory. Although some diners may stumble at eating elbow-to-elbow with a diner mowing through bone marrow, Wnuk said most diners have seemed to take in stride that both meat and non-meat eating styles are supported at Marrow.
Oregonzola cheese stuffed squash blossoms ($8) lost the delicate nuance of the bloom when battered and fried, but the creamy pungent blue cheese stuffing in concert with the slippery blossom made for a pleasing textural tension against the crunchy flour coating. A watermelon salad ($8) was sweetly succulent, cubes of watermelon refreshing against peppery arugula, creamy chevre and thumped with a Bing cherry and balsamic vinaigrette.
A starter of quinoa cakes ($8) with red pepper coulis combined red and white quinoa, a chewy grain with a nutty note, black beans, lentils, garbanzo beans and flax seed meal. The creamy cakes came pan-seared with a crunchy shell breaking into a creamy center flavored with kecap manis, an Indonesian style of thick, sweetened soy sauce. The same quinoa cake showed up as the base of the Arrow burger ($12) on a fluffy brioche roll from Essential bakery with roasted red pepper and frisee for a slight crunch. In fact, more crunch would have been nice, the burger was good, but mushy.
French lentils were earthy delicious ($14) with pumpkin seed oil and threaded with large shreds of refreshing mint, and topped with the cheese-stuffed squash blossom. If you must try one dish at Marrow, make it Farrotto ($13). Farro, an ancient grain seeing renewed enthusiasm among chefs, was slow-cooked and flavored with Beecher’s cheese and a mix of wild mushrooms – the result was a magical dish resembling risotto with a nutty, firm texture.
Defining the raw diet depends upon the eater, much like the wide spectrum of vegetarian or vegan eating. The raw diet can shrink or expand, it can be a full-time or part-time, it can include meat, or not. The general philosophy goes something like this: cooking food removes vital enzymes the body needs. Some raw foodists consider somewhere around 116 degrees to be the cutoff for cooking food. Dig deeper and you’ll find raw fans who eat a vegan diet of only plant-based foods. That’s the line of thinking at AmeRAWcan Bistro, a smart and well-designed restaurant that opened Aug. 12 in a tucked-away location on St. Helens Avenue.
Diners will find cinnamon rolls, crepes and vegan burgers at the bistro, but none of them “cooked.”
How does a kitchen turn out food that’s edible, but still abide by the non-cooked edict? Low-heat dehydration. That’s how cinnamon rolls are made as is the “bread” for the vegan burger ($10.95) with kale chips. Take a few pounds of onions and dehydrate them, and what do you get? A chewy, tasty “bun” that’s used as the shell for a loose quinoa filling. I’m a fan of any Thai coconut curry soup ($5.95) teeming with fresh ginger, and it wasn’t bothersome that it arrived cold. Want a side of crunch? Crispy, dehydrated kale chips with a light dusting of nutritional yeast and miso stood in for potato chips ($4.95). Zucchini fettuccine was not what I expected ($12.95), no pasta found on this plate. Long tendrils of raw, shredded zucchini was the “fettuccine” and the alfredo a creamy veggie-based dressing. In presentation? It was merely a delicious zucchini salad, although underseasoned.
AmeRAWcan Bistro is the restaurant of Darrin London, a graduate of the Western Culinary Academy, and wife Tina, who owns Tacoma’s London Couture. They became interested in the raw diet to lose weight and feel better, and both claim success after switching to a part-time raw vegan diet. At AmeRAWcan Bistro (pronounced “American”) the raw philosophy is vegan and uncooked, but meat eaters are welcome, too. An abbreviated list of deli sandwiches, made with fully cooked organic meats is offered, but London explained that a separate line is used to prepare the meat to keep the eating styles separate.
The dining room is handsome and modern, with comfortable leather and wood seating, dark hardwood floors, and full of geeky touches, such as iPads chained to every table for menu perusing. The servers are well-versed in the language of raw, vegan food. Ask a question about the ingredients and the chef might show up tableside.
This is a thoughtfully composed restaurant with details attended to, but will Tacoma buy a vegan restaurant, let alone one where most of the food is raw? Only time and your dining dollars will tell.
Sue Kidd dines anonymously and all meals are paid for by The News Tribune. Reach her at 253-597-8270 or email@example.com.
Read more online
Visit blog.thenewstribune.com/tntdiner to read about the vegetarian and vegan offerings of Caffe Dei and Quickie Too.