CARMELITA 100% pork-free. Casey Kelbaugh
Now, normally, you'd find me in a vegetarian restaurant about as often as you'd find Jodie Foster at Chippendales. But one cold night last week, I may have come close to understanding how someone could possibly live a life without pork.

Sure, Carmelita is an obvious choice--but I wanted to know what was considered haute vegetarian food. Carmelita has been a popular vegetarian temple since it opened in '96, receiving glowing praise from local food writers and vegetarian foodies alike. Even my staunch proletariat veggie friends--the same ones who give me shit for spending too much money on imported olives and French cheese--shamelessly melt when Carmelita is mentioned.

And make no mistake: This is not some glorified soy-chai-patchouli shack. Carmelita boasts an impressive history of chefs (Ericka Burke, who moved on to, er, greener pastures in San Francisco; Johnathan Sundstrom, who now gets adoring props over at Earth & Ocean; and current chef Daniel Braun, who has paid dues at places like Dahlia Lounge and Andaluca), and they've all mastered a tricky rite of passage for serious cooks: coaxing robust, successful flavors from ingredients without the easy crutch of meats or flavorful meat stocks, and learning to pair smartly and season skillfully--to be innovative, and have a real knowledge of what happens to different produce in different stages of cooking. It's an interesting challenge: Sure, you can make a nice veal-and-cabernet reduction... but can you hack it when all you've got to work with is plants?

Thankfully, butter, cheese, and cream are not off-limits to Braun and his talented kitchen (although there are plenty of true vegan options as well). And dairy definitely plays a starring role in the chanterelle mushroom "cappuccino" with truffle cream ($6) and the Quillisascut goat cheese appetizer with tomato-lavender chutney, smoked paprika almonds, and roasted garlic purée ($9). The chanterelle soup, looking like an oversized latte, was whipped to a gorgeous froth; but I was happy to discover vivid mushroom flavors and true substance. It was so right on, so autumnal, with its warm, milky finish--an ideal light starter when you're surrounded by Carmelita's cocoon of candlelight, low murmurs of conversation, and sweet, demure staff.

The goat cheese was rich and sharp, as it should be, with a great finish. But what impressed me most--and what is finally helping me to understand good vegetarian cooking--was the accompanying tomato-lavender chutney. The gentle acidity and sweetness of slow-stewed tomatoes blended with aromatic lavender flowers to create a combination that will be forever filed away in my sense memory. I think this is the key: using the power of fragrance (there's a reason why lavender body lotions are such a hit) to your advantage, and matching seemingly everyday foods, like tomatoes, with unlikely seasonings.

This sort of romantic alchemy appears everywhere on the menu--in the delicious vanilla-citrus vinaigrette that accompanies the chickpea croquette with hearts of palm ($10), or the cumin oil and Gala apples that find their way into a cauliflower soup ($6); in broccoli that becomes a pesto with cured olives and tomato marmalade on a pizza ($15); in the fresh mint and shaved radishes that augment a salad of baby lettuces ($7); or in a side of pear-and-Brussels-sprout hash with sage-infused chèvre cream (which comes with the sweet potato agnolotti entrée, $17).

Entrées get a bit more down to business--as in, lots of delicious carbohydrates (pastas, mashed potatoes, risotto, polenta) along with the ubiquitous portobello mushroom option (in this case, a roulade, $17). The heirloom tomato risotto with chanterelles and mascarpone ($17) had a disappointing texture--I longed for more creaminess and softer rice kernels. But goat cheese gnocchi with cherry tomatoes, pea vines, lemon-dill butter, and toasted pine nuts ($18) provided the smooth suppleness I craved, with goat cheese that didn't overpower everything, and pleasantly tart tomatoes and crunchy pea shoots that felt like the last stubborn flavors of summer lingering a few moments longer.

Carmelita 7314 Greenwood Ave N, 706-7703. Dinner Tues-Sun 5-10 pm (closed Mon).