Remember that wonderful advertisement whose tag line was, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Rye?” It came to mind as I dined at Table Verte, a tiny (38 seats), East Village gem, the first vegetarian restaurant whose food I really find amazing.
You definitely don’t have to be a vegetarian to love the subtle and refined dishes created by chef Ken Larsen. A graduate of the French Culinary Institute, Larsen spent a number of years working at traditional high-end New York restaurants. Gradually, however, he became a vegetarian (losing 100 pounds in the process), and transferred his love of French flavors, sauces, spices and cooking techniques to the vegetable kingdom, creating plant-based meals every bit as satisfying as those with meat or fish.
Larsen, Brooklyn born, from a Norwegian family, does not try to create pseudo meat dishes, as so many vegetarian places do. He is unapologetic about making a vegetable – whether Roast Broccoli or Cauliflower – the center of the plate. But it is hardly the only thing on the plate. He then adds a variety of “aromatics,” sauces, and complementary vegetables, to produce layered and complex dishes. And fabulous desserts. At reasonable prices.
At a recent press dinner, we shared a number of dishes and there wasn’t a dud in the bunch.
We began with Larsen’s “Plat Froid (Cold Plate),” a composition of four classic first-course salads in French cuisine – Celeri Remoulade ($7.25), slivers of celery root marinade with lemon juice, dressed with home made mayo, capers, tarragon and cornichon; Lentils Vinaigrette ($5.50), bathed in a mix of braised carrots, celery and leeks with a Dijon vinaigrette; and, betraying his Norwegian roots, Beets with Horseradish ($6.50), seasoned with shallots, tarragon and herbs, and Carrot Salad, with lemon, chickpeas and a touch of Harissa ($6.50). My absolute favorite, the Green Lentils, were cooked to perfection – soft and luscious – with a depth of flavor I found remarkable. On a summer day, accompanied by Larsen’s home-made onion bread and a glass of wine, this first course could be a meal in itself.
Some dishes are Vegan, some are Gluten Free, and are labeled with their respective symbols: V, GF.
Other small plates and appetizers include a variety of soups and hot dishes. We sampled the bean-based vegetable Cassoulet with roasted shallots($9.00). It is hearty and delicious. Even more stunning is a Yam Cake ($4.75), thinly layered sweet potato seasoned with nutmeg, cinnamon and poached in cream. Totally amazing!
Choux Fleur Roti
We next shared three main course dishes. Choux Fleur Roti ($17.75), my absolute favorite, consisted of a large crown of roasted, caramelized cauliflower sitting atop a layer of sautéed spinach, nestled in a base of rosemary infused quinoa, surrounded by a fig and caper sauce. It is a total treat.
Equally delicious was the Roast Broccoli ($15.50), with turnip, prunes and carrots in a mustard tarragon sauce, with a small portion of roasted yam.
Gnocchi au Gratin
Everyone adored the sinfully rich and satisfying Gnocchi au Gratin with Truffles ($19.75), a sophisticated version of Mac ‘n Cheese, composed of Pate a Choux Dough, white sauce, Swiss Cheese and a slice of real Truffle and served in an adorable miniature red clay plot.
Semolina Wheat Cake
The three desserts we sampled were knockouts. First place, in my book, goes to Larsen’s Semolina Wheat Cake bathed in caramel, raisins, rum and Crème Anglaise ($5.50) Of course, you could probably put Crème Anglaise on shoe leather, and I’d lap it up, but the Wheat Cake is a recipe from Larsen’s grandmother, and it pairs beautifully with the sauce. Heaven.
Second place goes to Banana Brulee, which is as delicious as it sounds, a combo of bananas, Nilla crackers, Crème Patissiere, covered with a lightly browned caramel crust.
Third place goes to a slightly chewy vegan chocolate tarte, whose unusual ingredients consist of dark Callebaut chocolate, avocado “ganache” with rice, almond and raisin.
Chef Ken Larsen
Table Verte’s philosophy is market based so the menu changes frequently, depending on what is available and in season. Only in full operation a few months (it had the misfortune to open just before Hurricane Sandy), the restaurant has yet to receive its liquor license, so it’s a BYOB set up for now, which means it’s an even greater bargain than it will be in a few months.
I heartily recommend Table Verte. It isn’t food you have to eat because the food police say it’s good for you; this is food you want to eat because it’s absolutely delicious.
Review and Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag
Table Verte: French Vegetarian Bistro
127 East 7th Street (Between 1st and Avenue A)
5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday
5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Brunch: 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday