[Sidebar] January 13 - 20, 2000
[Food Reviews]
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Garden Grille

Grilled tofu, anyone?

by Bill Rodriguez

727 East Avenue, Pawtucket, 726-2826
Open Mon-Sat, 10 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
Sun, 12-8 p.m. (Juice bar opens at 11 a.m. on Sun)
Major credit cards
Sidewalk access

Back in the days of Berkeley vegetarianism -- what I like to call the whole-wheat-gravy-on-underdone-brown-rice days -- a few of us discovered the true joys of meatless meals based on ethnic recipes, especially from Far Eastern and south of the border cuisines. By the early '80s, "natural foods" had become big business (or at least medium-big), and prepared foods like Annie's boxes of macaroni and cheese and Light Life's tempeh burgers were staples in a kitchen that had heretofore declared itself a from-scratch zone.

At about the same time, Rob Jaffe was running a natural foods store, the Golden Sheaf, on Wickenden Street (after that spot's incarnation as the Providence Zen Center, and before its current status as Tokyo). Jaffe was also discovering the fast foods that could be offered to vegetarians, and in 1996, he opened the Garden Grille, with Garden, Boca and tempeh burgers in several incarnations: on buns with the works, or with a side of wood-grilled fries, either white or sweet potato.

Almost four years later, Garden Grille has a steady following among local vegans, vegetarians and adherents to special diets. On a recent week night, four of us had to wait for a table to open, and when we ordered two hours before closing, they were out of a special for the night, the Southwest quesadillas, and the rice noodles for a regular menu item, the pad Thai.

Undeterred, we chose other selections. I was gravitating to the honey maple-smoked and marinated tofu ($10.95) all along, and Bill had been drawn to the grilled portobello wrap ($6.95). Our friends, one a terrific macrobiotic cook and cooking teacher, and the other a soulful musician, ordered their usuals: a pizza bella with soy mozzarella ($7.95) and a peace wrap ($5.95). She also got a cup of vegetarian chili ($2.95), Bill had miso soup ($2.50) and we all shared wood-grilled sweet potato fries ($3.95), some regular fries ($2.95) and a special, the Asian dumplings with Hunan dipping sauce ($5.95).

The latter, which come from a local Asian market, were my favorite, with bits of chive and mushroom in the dumplings and a kick to the sauce. I also found myself returning again and again to the thick-cut sweet potato fries, crispy on the outside and tender on the inside.

My tofu entree, however, disappointed me. Although the smokey taste whispered around the tofu and the top of each triangle had a mapley glaze, the inside was somewhat tough and unmarinated. I'm that rare phenomenon -- a tofu fan -- and I'll eat it almost any way, anyhow. But this dish just did not live up to its menu description. In addition, a side of short-grained brown rice was woefully underdone.

Bill, on the other hand, loved the melding flavors of arugula, roasted red peppers and grilled portobello, bound together with brown rice in a spinach-flour tortilla. The wood-grilled fries he ordered with it, though, seemed to have been brushed with too much oil for our taste.

The pizza bella was thin-crust, heaped with veggies, including artichoke hearts, and it was yummy. The vegetarian chili was nicely spiced, with corn as well as beans, though no pintos. And the peace wrap was stuffed to overflowing with hummus, tabouli, greens, carrots and tomatoes.

We glanced at the packaged natural cookies, especially the chocolate cherry one, but we were way too full. For a future visit, our musician friend recommended a smoothie for dessert, especially the "Barbuda blast," a blend of raspberry, apple, banana, bee pollen and spirulina.

Our waiter, Mark, was patient and helpful. Attentive to my yearning for mango, he brought a complimentary side dish of the golden slices, and attentive to our wait at the juice bar for a table, he made sure to tell the other staff that we were next in line.

The juice bar itself didn't measure up. We had not read the menu carefully enough to notice that not all of the juices are fresh-squeezed, and we ordered a pear-ginger combo that, disappointingly, was from a jar. Though we were told that fresh lemon juice would be added, I noticed the juice-maid only spritzing something into the glasses from a smaller bottle. Since we always get fresh-squeezed pear juice at a South County natural foods restaurant, I spoke with the manager and was told that it's too much work to remove seeds from pears to juice them.

Which brings me full circle to the use of prepared meat substitutes at Garden Grille. It's great to know that, as a vegetarian, you can go out and indulge in a meatless burger, but it would be even more fun if the kitchen came up with their own recipes for veggie burgers or Asian dumplings. And it would make me, as a diner, feel more special if more care was taken with such items as the rice and fresh juices.

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