Not Missing the Meat

The Tasteful Kitchen's vegetarian and vegan fare can satisfy all comers

Vegetarian options are often an afterthought on a restaurant menu, and vegan options are even more limited—prepared by chefs and cooks used to thinking of vegetables only as a side dish.

The Tasteful Kitchen is raising the bar for vegetarian, raw-food and vegan fare in Tucson with tasty, beautiful and inventive cuisine. Each day, the menu features a prix fixe tasting menu, and a vegan raw-food tasting menu (each $25), in addition to the standard choices.

On our first visit, we decided to try one of each tasting menu—one vegetarian, and one raw vegan—as well as the day's fresh juice ($6). Each includes a soup, salad, entrée and dessert. Each course was delicious; as an avid carnivore, I didn't even miss the meat. The vegetarian soup (served hot) was a red-pepper tomato bisque served with a crouton, and the raw vegan soup was a creamy carrot avocado served chilled with a sunflower-seed "cracker." Both soups were well-seasoned, flavorful and surprisingly creamy, with a nice mouth feel, though a few more croutons and crackers on the side would have been a nice touch. The daily juice flavor—"Tastes Like Strawberry"—was actually a mix of beets, pineapple and red peppers. It did indeed taste like strawberry and was quite refreshing.

Dinner continued with a house salad: mixed greens, julienned jicama, orange supremes and toasted nuts tossed in an apple-cumin vinaigrette. The salad was fresh, with a great mix of flavors, but the vinaigrette was barely detectable.

The entrées were impeccable—my raw tacos were an amazing mix of sunflower-seed paste, avocado crema, salsa and jalapeños wrapped up in a purple cabbage leaf and served with jicama "rice." They were perfectly spicy, light and fresh-tasting.

Ted's salsa verde enchiladas were also delightful. The corn tortillas—filled with a spinach, mushroom, millet and cilantro pesto mix—were coated with a mild green chile sauce and avocado crema. He said that they could have used just a touch more heat, but were otherwise very tasty. The jicama "rice," also served with the enchiladas, was sweet and crunchy.

Dessert was also excellent—each prix fixe menu comes with a choice of any dessert on the menu, so we decided to share the "Isabella's Green Machine Ice Cream," and the decadent carrot cake. (Both contain eggs and dairy.) The ice cream, with a mix of kale, apple and ginger, was sweetly spicy and very tasty, and came with a tasty gluten-free cookie. The carrot cake was divine: rich, moist and not too sweet.

We went for a second time the following week, but were turned away because we didn't have reservations. (They were at the tail end of a LivingSocial deal and had big crowds.) So we reserved a table for another evening. The restaurant is small and intimate, with seating for maybe 30, and reservations are highly recommended—even when there's not an online deal.

On our second visit, we brought a bottle of wine to go with dinner (there is a $5 corkage fee for wine and beer) and ordered from the regular menu. Again, the food was delicious.

We started with the butternut and green chili tostadas appetizer ($8), as well as the TK sushi roll ($8). All of the food at The Tasteful Kitchen is beautifully presented, but these two dishes took the cake, so to speak. The sushi roll was a raw vegan dish composed of sunflower seed "rice," pickled red cabbage, avocado, cucumber and other julienned veggies, wrapped in nori paper and presented on a plate swirled with a sweet soy reduction and hot sauce. Ted didn't realize that there was no rice in the roll until he was well into it.

The tostadas were crispy little corn tortillas smeared with black-bean paste, melted cheese, pumpkin seed and cilantro pesto, and then topped with jalapeño slices, slaw and other veggie goodness, and served with slices of creamy roasted butternut squash. They weren't spicy on the first bite, but after finishing two of the four, my mouth had a pleasant burn from the chiles.

The entrées were good, but not quite as impressive as on the previous visit. I had the organic macrobiotic plate ($14), which was a burger-sized croquette of brown rice and adzuki beans, drizzled with tahini sauce and set atop a pile of sautéed greens, mushrooms and squash. The outside of the croquette was nice and crisp. And with the addition of a touch of salt, it was a tasty meal, though without the "wow" factor that the tacos had on the previous visit.

Ted went for the roasted vegetable ragout with polenta ($14). The polenta cake was thick and cheesy—almost too cheesy—and topped with roasted eggplant, tomatoes, capers and peppers. The juice from the ragout helped flavor the polenta, and all of the flavors melded nicely together, though, again, it lacked the panache of the entrées from our previous meal.

We ended the evening with the vegan banana cake topped with vegan chocolate sauce ($6), and the raw organic strawberry parfait with berry sauce ($6). The banana cake was like super-rich banana bread, and was spongy, moist and tasty. The parfait missed the mark for both of us on mouth feel; although the flavors were good, the texture was too grainy to be enjoyable.

Keanne and Sigret Thompson, the sisters who own the Tasteful Kitchen, are bringing an artful twist to vegetarian, vegan and raw food, and are making these foods more than just an afterthought on Tucson's menu.

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