Despite having recently embraced my penchant for the carnivorous after abnegating for nearly a decade, I still turn frequently and with great fondness towards the leafier side of eats. I’m sure you’ll scoff, but I honestly don’t slake my thirst on the blood of the innocents at every meal. For all the hype, Michael Pollan’s overly simplistic aphorism does contain a kernel of truth: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” It’s just that well, how exciting is it to write about that big salad I had for lunch? And tofu is tofu.
Even worse, it seems to me that the majority of dedicated vegetarian or vegan restaurants in town just try too hard. I don’t want “fake meat”. I can’t stand “fake meat”. And the pretension, my god the preening, self-righteous crowds at these places can be completely insufferable. But there is one restaurant, a farm-to-table mainstay on Phinney Ridge that aspires to nothing more than artful, well-cooked vegetarian cuisine. It’s Carmelita, and it’s worth a visit by even the most dedicated kitten killer.
Carmelita has had quite a procession of chefs over the years, most notably Ericka Burke of Volunteer Park Café fame (and Oddfellows infamy). The latest chef, Carlos Caula, came on board last year, shortly before the restaurant was renovated to add a small bar in the front. The décor is funky, an eclectic mix of bright oil paintings and cedar and the most bizarre molded ceiling I’ve seen. To wit:
Leafy! Carmelita also features one of the most attractive garden patio decks in town during the spring and summer – a highly coveted oasis of bright flowers, climbing vines and colored glass lanterns. Be sure to request it in your reservation.
I had the pleasure of dining with friends at Carmelita a few weeks ago, and found the restaurant to be packed and lively, warm and comfortable. Service was relaxed, and we enjoyed a round of bright red Negroni from the new “Carma-bar”. As with most locavore establishments in town, the menu provided a lengthy list of purveyors – from Foraged and Found to Full Circle Farm. Additionally, an enlightening side bar detailed all the fruits and vegetables that were currently in season and featured in the dishes for the evening. Vegan dishes are also highlighted, and most everything can be requested as such if you’re totally extreme, man.
We started with a simple roasted beet carpaccio, thinly sliced with playful scalloped edges. The sweet red and yellow beets were interspersed with juicy slices of blood orange on a bed of peppery arugula tossed with a pomegranate vinaigrette. An order of raviolo with truffled parsnip and warm, gooey egg vanished in a flash of forks. For the main course, I was immediately drawn to the Autumn root vegetable pot pie. I freaking love pot pie. The crust was flaky, the medley of sweet potato and rutabaga warm and firm. There was a sweetness from fresh cooked pears that I found pleasantly surprising, and a pervasive, savory smokiness throughout the filling.
In fact, Chef Carlos loves him some smoke. Nearly every dish we tried had a deep, smoky flavor base. Most notably, a wild rice flour crepe, filled with cauliflower and red wine braised cabbage. The crepe was quite hearty, and stuffed with tiny florets of smoked purple and white cauliflower, mixed with mascarpone and green olives. A lemon thyme buerre blanc was almost completely overwhelmed by the intense smokiness, but the crepe was still better than Portobello Wellington. In fact, I’m happy to report that there is neither Portobello mushroom nor eggplant anywhere to be found on the menu at Carmelita. How I genuinely loathe these standards of generic vegetarian cuisine.
But that’s the thing. While there may be the occasional missed dish, or some under-seasoning, at least they’re taking risks. I much prefer my vegetarian cuisine to appeal to the inherent strengths of the vegetable. Carmelita is not going to doctor up a shiitake mushroom and call it Mongolian Beef. And for that reason alone, it’s the best vegetarian restaurant in town.