Amuse-Bouche: Garden Grille

Pretty AND healthy AND tasty.

Despite their prevalence today — especially on college campuses, especially at Brown — vegetarians are all too frequently handed the short end of the stick when it comes to dining out. Sure, nearly all restaurants throw their veg patrons a bone a token meatless dish, but they often get lazy in the process. The result is one too many bland pasta dishes or lackluster heaps of grilled vegetables. Even if you’re a proud carnivore, a restaurant’s vegetarian options should ideally be as enticing as its steak frites or scallops and vanilla leeks.

Enter Garden Grille. From its abode in a strip mall straight up Hope Street and into Pawtucket, it’s pretty unassuming. But inside, it’s pretty freaking cute. Blue-green walls, lantern lights, and fresh flowers on each table contribute to a hip but cozy, casual atmosphere. One downside of this is that you may have to wait for your table, so plan accordingly; alternatively, you can sidle up at the bar if you’re super-hungry (which we were).

Seeing as how it makes good, creative use of lots and lots of fresh produce, the menu changes seasonally. For winter, that means lots of extra-savory, comforting dishes. I had grilled Maitake mushrooms ($16), which came in smoky little clusters atop a mound of red rice (imagine brown rice but nuttier and chewier) in miso broth with crisp baby bok choy, sweet potatoes, and roasted turnips. It was savory and filling and inspired and strange, the polar opposite of those chicken-shit vegetarian entrées at some other restaurants.

We also tried the roasted vegetable salad ($9) pictured at top, which features celery root, onion, chayote (a mild cousin of squash), radish, and grilled apples. All this is substantiated with a big tuft of quinoa and tossed with lovely ribbons of radicchio in an extraordinarily addictive pistachio vinaigrette. Light and zingy enough to get those brain cells humming, it’s also solid enough to provide leftovers (which retain their crispness overnight to boot!). It’s not totally clear that the vegetables therein are roasted (they were served cold and crunchy enough to seem raw), but the salad was damn good, so that ranked very low on the list of concerns. Check out the specials, too; the split pea soup with charred jalapeño and spinach was comforting and winter-perfect, if not dazzlingly sophisticated or sexy.

Other items, though, grew a little heavy-handed after the honeymoon phase of those first few bites had passed. Both the charred leek risotto cakes with cashew-parsnip purée ($16) and the smoked onion pizza with bourbon sweet potato spread and arugula ($14) could’ve done with something bright or tart or spicy to cut through everything else on the plate. Vegetarian food is especially prone to this since it relies more heavily on starches to bulk it up — gone is the back-up plan of throwing a filet mignon on the plate and calling it a night — so to avoid entrée ennui, seek out the dishes that ride on “meatier” ingredients such as mushrooms, squash, or tofu.

Yes, Garden Grille is in Pawtucket, but logistically, it’s very easy to get to. Grab the 42 bus, outbound, from the tunnel on Thayer Street. Ride it all the way up to Lafayette Street, jump out, and cross to the other side. Simple as that! The restaurant is open everyday until 10pm, so fire away.

High: Garden Grille’s food is exciting, imaginative, and tasty in its own right; the fact that it’s completely vegetarian is incidental. By all accounts, that’s how vegetarian food should be.

Low: Some things on the menu can get dull pretty fast. In some cases, this is solved with a nice shake of the salt shaker; in others, not so much, and you’ll be wishing for a little something extra to give it a lot more dimension.

Bottom Line: Not enough restaurants seek out to be inventive purveyors of vegetarian cuisine, but that is exactly what Garden Grille does — and does well. Keep this in your back pocket for cute atmosphere and interesting food that lets you feel ethically and environmentally responsible.

Hey, you! Keep the feedback coming. Hit me up at Remy_Robert@brown.edu for restaurant suggestions, to invite yourself to dinner, to offer to pay for all my food, or to geek out with me about cheese.

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