The vegetarian experiment

The ups and downs of a meat-free week

It was Wayne's idea. After eating veal recently, I had my usual attack of guilt. As I told him, I didn't eat veal for ethical reasons for more than 10 years. He said he doesn't feel right about eating meat of any type much of the time.

"Why don't we experiment and not eat meat for a week?" he said.

"Well," I said, "I have decided to stop eating pasta and bread, so that would be difficult."

Boy howdy. We could have eaten every meal at Dynamic Dish and been quite happy. But part of the initial plan, besides staying within our usual intown dining zones, was to go to our regular haunts that serve meat. As I'm sure you've noticed, nearly every restaurant these days offers "vegetarian options." I never order these, unless it's a straightforward salad, so I thought this would be an opportunity to experiment.

That did not last long. At Grant Central, where we frequently eat, there's salad and pasta or pizza without meat. We devoured a huge pizza, despite my decision not to eat bread. I did not feel good afterward.

Then we went to the Standard, another of our regular spots where the food is usually good and sometimes weirdly and wonderfully experimental, like a recent special of South African curry. I ordered the "vegetarian burger" and my favorite plantains drizzled with honey.

I've had a few vegetarian burgers I liked – at the Righteous Room, especially – but this one, made primarily with black beans, was basically inedible to my palate. Even topped with lots of mustard, it was so dry that swallowing it was difficult. We allowed ourselves dairy products during this experiment, but a slice of melted cheddar didn't help the weirdly flavor-vacuous burger, either. I love the servers at the Standard, so, after three bites, I was embarrassed to be unable to eat more. I hid the burger under my napkin and sat Wayne's (empty) plate atop it. (He made the wiser choice of a grilled-cheese sandwich.)

There were other experiences in our usual zones, but, finally we were motivated to drive to Sandy Springs to try out World Peace Café (220 Hammond Drive, 404-256-2100). This somewhat retro-looking spot, with a loftlike dining room upstairs, features big paper lanterns and a little gift area where you can buy – I don't know – peaceful T-shirts.

This cafe is operated by the nearby Rameshori Buddhist Center. Rameshori is a global organization and operates these cafes all over the world, depending in part on volunteer labor. Don't worry; you're not going to be drugged, abducted, dressed in a saffron robe and forced to work in the kitchen while reciting mantras. Rameshori is a mainstream movement.

The food is mainly quite good. It's not vegan for the most part, although there are some vegan dishes, and wheat-free ones too. The cafe tries to stick to organic, local produce but its literature admits "cost, availability and consistency of the product" make doing that unfeasible some of the time.

We both ordered the alcohol-free mint juleps, basically minty ginger beer, to drink. I had a simple meal of absolutely wonderful gazpacho and a rich quiche made with cauliflower, Emmenthaler cheese and sautéed shallots. It's a classic presentation with a perfect crust.

Wayne ordered one of the three spicy "Peace Burgers." The burger itself is vegan, made with organic vegetables and oats, but he picked the style piled with blue cheese and seasoned with "Buffalo" hot sauce. Personally, I didn't much care for this veggie burger, either, but it was far more palatable than the one I'd tried to eat earlier. Wayne loved it.

We also ordered desserts, a gingerbread pound cake and a white cake layered with strawberry jam and "vegan whipped cream icing." The latter surprised me. It tasted like it was made with cream cheese. I took home an all-organic "Blissful Banana Pudding" that was the best of the three.

I also took home a container of the restaurant's pimento cheese, which you can order on a sandwich in the cafe. It's a sharp, spicy version that's been powdered with cayenne, full of red roasted peppers. Delicious.

World Peace is open daily except Monday for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It's not as good as Dynamic Dish, but, among vegetarian restaurants (outside Indian ones) I've visited in our city, I'd certainly place it in the top three.

We also paid a visit to Soul Vegetarian (652 N. Highland Ave., 404-875-4641). There is another one of these on Ralph Abernathy Boulevard and both are operated by a religious group, the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, which, like the World Peace Café, operates these cafes all over the globe. Religious trappings are more obvious here, with the staff in colorful robes and biblical verses printed here and there.

Soul Vegetarian is completely vegan and is loved by many people. The idea here is to cook classic Southern soul food with no meat, quite an ambitious goal. The restaurant's main meat substitute is called kalebone, a wheat-gluten protein. (This is interesting given how many people now try to avoid wheat products, too.)

Wayne ordered "country fried steak" made of kalebone, smothered in gravy, served with vegan mac and cheese and broccoli. The kalebone tasted nothing like country-fried steak to me, but I usually find vegetarian products masking as meat unpleasant. I'd rather just eat straightforward vegetables and tofu for the most part.

My own dish of fried cauliflower was a mixed success. The cauliflower itself was great. But it was under a dreadful, sugary barbecue sauce that tasted like a bottled product mixed with Karo syrup. An ear of corn was so overcooked every kernel was wrinkled. But a serving of collards was the best thing I tasted.

I lunched much of the week at the Green Sprout, where I also much prefer straightforward vegetarian dishes such as the Yukon Gold potatoes with pickled veggies and the bean sprouts in tofu skin. Finally, props to Thai and Sushi in East Atlanta Village. We ordered curries made with tofu there and they were certainly the best dishes we ate at a restaurant not identified as vegetarian.

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