Vegetarian Bon Vivants

As the baby boomers age, they demand healthier food from their favorite chefs.


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It's not unusual for Pete and Sylvia Thompson to order a four-course dinner at Alan Wong's.

It's not even unusual for them to accompany those courses with a few wines from their own collection. These wines, arriving in a discreet cooler, are so rare that the restaurant is willing to let them BYOB. Tonight's cooler, for instance, includes a premier cru burgundy-a Latricières-Chambertin. Its label reads 1972, making it older than Ryan the waiter.

Pete and Sylvia Thompson at one of their favorite places to eat vegetarian, Samira’s Country Market. Photos: Olivier Koning

The Thompsons are veterans of high-end restaurants, wine-club dinners, informal but decidedly gourmet get-togethers. So this is far from an unusual evening for them.

Except for one thing: The multicourse menu they are ordering from is vegetarian. "Remember," Sylvia tells Ryan, "Pete is totally vegan, no cheese."

Last fall, Pete had a heart attack. Both he and Sylvia had a hard time believing it. He worked out hard every day and took Lipitor to control his cholesterol. "I thought the Lipitor was gobbling up all the fat from the foie gras I was eating," he says with a laugh. "I guess not."

Eggplant tian with asparagus and leeks. Food from Alan Wong’s vegetarian menu

Thompson was lucky. A doc from his wine club got him in to see a cardiologist immediately, and the cardiologist slapped him into a bed at Queen's. An angiogram later, Pete was a new man. On a new diet.

A friend, Rebecca Woodland-Hawley, dropped off a copy of her own book, The Blonde Vegetarian, and suggested the Thompsons look into the diet of Dr. Dean Ornish. "We studied his heart disease reversal diet, which calls for the elimination of all animal fats," says Sylvia. "That includes meats, fish, poultry and dairy products. You replace your animal diet with whole grains, fruits and vegetables."

Unlike the current low-carb diets, which the Thompsons refer to as "Fatkins," the Ornish diet has had proven success in helping people heal their heart problems. It's also tough to stick to.

You would have thought the Thompsons-with their active social and restaurant-going lives-wouldn't have been able to stick to a strict vegetarian diet. But it turned out to be easy. Less than a week after Pete came out of the hospital, the Thompsons met friends at the Musicians Union. About 10 of them gathered before the music started to share wine and püpü. Instead of picking up crab cakes from the Pineapple Room, Sylvia stopped at Down to Earth for takeout. Their friends showed up with salads, sautéed eggplant, veggie monk's food and more takeout from Down to Earth. "They were so supportive of Pete's diet," she says.

Grilled Mediterranean vegetable “pizza” on puff pastry, with Big Island goat cheese.

Takeout with friends is one thing, but the Thompsons also found their favorite restaurants more than willing to accommodate vegetarian diets. "It's so easy," says Pete. "Sylvia took some materials over to chefs we knew well-Alan, Hiroshi, Russell Siu." But they found they could eat vegetarian even in top-end Mainland restaurants, such as San Francisco's Gary Danko. "They made us a great vegetarian meal and said that with 24 hours' notice, they could do even better," recalls Pete. "So we went back the next night."

Adds Sylvia, "They made us a miso-glazed tofu that I wish Alan would make."

There might not be miso-glazed tofu at Alan Wong's, but there is a four-course vegetarian tasting menu for $45. This isn't something special for the Thompsons; it's part of the regular offerings. As the baby boomers age, and as vegetarianism becomes more and more mainstream, we're likely to see more such veg-friendly menus.

The first course out of the kitchen isn't even on the menu. It's an eggplant tian. Nowadays, tian is any dish cooked in a small earthenware casserole. It was originally a Provençal dish of gratinéed vegetables. The Wong version is closer to the original, with a slight Asian accent. The eggplant is warm, assertively spiced, with a tinge of sesame oil. It's topped with leeks and asparagus and sauced with a miso vinaigrette and basil-spinach oil. It's a powerful flavor package, especially as we are accompanying it with glasses of Taittinger Comte de Champagne 1995.

"I think the eggplant was originally a side dish for something else on the menu," says Sylvia. "If you need to eat someplace that doesn't have a vegetarian menu, you can always go down the regular dishes and say, well, I can eat this part from that dish. You often get great stuff."

Panzanella salad with cherry tomatoes.

Great stuff indeed is the next course, tomatoes served four ways: a tall, narrow glass of chilled, vine-ripened tomato soup, with micro-basil. A small spoonful of tiny teardrop tomatoes in a vinaigrette given an Island-style kick by li hing mui powder (yeah, the li hing mui tends to overwhelm the tomatoes, but it's still fun to blast your palate with). A cherry-tomato salad with croutons, greens and, on ours but not Pete's, a sprinkling of Parmesan. Finally, a "pizza" of tomatoes and zucchini in a tomato-ginger coulis. The crust was puff pastry, the topping goat cheese.

Tomatoes four ways are succeeded by Kahuku corn three ways: (1) sautéed with shiitake mushrooms, (2) as a tiny taro and corn tamale and (3) grilled on the cob, with salsa and an ancho chili miso sauce.

Interestingly enough, the first courses let the vegetables themselves star. The only dish that pretends to be something else is the penne pasta in tofu-tomato sauce. This comes with meatballs that aren't meatballs. They are made from portobello mushrooms, but they taste for all the world like Italian sausage. Actually better than most Italian sausage. And just the sort of thing you might want to eat with a 30-year-old burgundy that's a little past its prime, but still full of terroir.

It seems a shame to bring such a dinner to an end. The great thing is that, unlike a protein-packed regular tasting menu, this meal sits lightly on the stomach and leaves room for dessert.

Above: Portobello mushroom “meatballs,” penne pasta with tofu and vine-ripened tomato sauce, from Alan Wong’s vegetarian menu.

The regular desserts on the vegetarian menu are too rich and full of dairy for Pete, so the kitchen improvised, if you can call so polished a dual dessert improvisation. We get a little sweet potato puff filled with haupia. "These remind me of the coco puffs at Liliha Bakery," says Sylvia. And a glass of housemade ginger ale with fruit, liliko'i sorbet and small squares of fruit gelatin, which reminds me of Bubble Tea, except it tastes good.

Instead of post-dinner chocolates, there's a small plate of perfect fresh berries, kiwi and pineapple.

"We never have any trouble getting people to go out with us," says Sylvia. "All of our friends love these vegetarian meals."

"I think it's because everyone is getting a little older and has to eat smarter," says Pete. "This kind of meal is going to become normal. And you know why. Because it requires no sacrifices. It's great food."

Dining Vegetarian

Sylvia and Pete Thompson suggest the following restaurants for vegetarian meals:

Samira’s Country Market * 1423 10th Ave.* 734-8317.
Specializes in takeout orders, but dining-in is available by reservations. Limited seating. Open Monday to Thursday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday and holidays from
11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Legend Vegetarian (formerly Buddhist Vegetarian) * 100 N. Beretania St., #109 (Chinese Cultural Plaza),
532-8218. Offering all Chinese vegetarian meals. It’s open for lunch everyday (10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.), except Wednesdays. For dinner, walk next door to Legend Seafood Restaurant to order from the same vegetarian menu. Takeout available. Vegetarian Society of Hawai‘i members receive a 5 percent discount.

Mekong I * 1295 S. Beretania St. * 591-8841 or 591-8842.
Serving many Thai vegetarian dishes for lunch (Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.) or dinner (nightly from 5 to 9:30). Closed Saturdays and Sundays.
Takeout available.

Alan Wong’s * 1857 S. King St. Third Floor *
949-2526. Offering a four-course vegetarian tasting menu. Accommodations made for vegetarian diets. Please call 48 hours in advance. Open nightly for
dinner from 5 to 9.

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