Vegetarian Bon Vivants

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

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.

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

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.

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.”

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

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.

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.”

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.

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

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.”

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

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.”


and Pete Thompson suggest the following restaurants for vegetarian meals:

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.

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.

* 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.

* 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.