Our Lady of Vegetarian Indulgence
St. Dames in Columbia City Is Pretty Damn Good
There is no Saint Dames, but if there were, she'd be the patron saint of comfortable vegetarian restaurants run by intrepid lesbian couples in up-and-coming neighborhoods.
Neither Amy Weems or Sarah Murphy—the owners of brand-new St. Dames in Columbia City—is especially religious; they're just both "enamored with Catholic iconography," says Weems. Vegetarianism isn't a big political thing for them, either—they just love simple, delicious food. So they've scattered some Virgin Mary art around their small, dimly lit restaurant, and they've made sure some good stuff is coming out of the kitchen.
St. Dames's neighbors, one block from the Columbia City light rail stop, are mostly construction sites and For Lease signs. But Weems has heard rumors about an optometrist moving in across the street, as well as both Somalian and Ethiopian restaurants. One of their happy hour regulars, a lawyer, is opening an office nearby.
Meanwhile, St. Dames is a savior. Inside, it's romantic and dramatic—even a bit gothic—with a black ceiling, burgundy walls, horseshoe-shaped booths, and lots of candlelight. If the religious kitsch and the electronic pop soundtrack (MGMT, the Postal Service, Matt & Kim) clash a bit with the vibe, no one seems to mind. The menu is a vegetarian and vegan comfort-food haven: nut burgers, lentil loaf, hush puppies, vegan mac and cheese, risotto cakes, a portobello mushroom "cheese stake" sandwich. And kale. Salty, delicious braised tamari kale comes with the macaroni. It comes with the mushroom risotto cakes. It comes with the butternut squash gnocchi. So. Much. Kale.
The first thing—the only thing—I saw when my dinner was delivered was a plateful of kale, the dark, leafy greens shimmering under a glaze of oil and seasoning. But hiding next to the overwhelming mound of rabbit food was a small pile of butternut squash gnocchi—tasty, hand-formed orange orbs mixed up with button mushrooms, hazelnuts, and blue cheese ($10.25). They were a little inconsistent—some were more tender than others, and they didn't have the same wonderful texture as traditional potato gnocchi—but they were seasoned well. I wished there were more of them, in fact, and less kale. I couldn't eat all my kale; it was a really huge heap of kale. Did I mention the kale?
The vegan mac and cheese ($9.25) was even more satisfying, and it came with a less overwhelming heap of greens. The pale orange "cheese" sauce was rich and creamy, thickly coating every microscopic iota of the penne pasta (cashews are one of the secret ingredients). The only thing it needed was a little crunch—maybe some bread crumbs or even seeds. Vegans love their seeds.
The portobello fake cheesesteak ($10.25) was another hit, accompanied by a giant heap of fries (no kale). The fries were thickly cut with the skin still on, and they tasted good, but they had hardly any crunch to them: sad. But the sandwich was a revelation: slices of mushroom, red pepper, provolone cheese, and perhaps the most tongue-scorching sandwich spread (made with jalapeño and Vegenaise) known to humanity, all shoved into a wonderfully tender house-made baguette.
The winter salad—a big bowl of fresh greens (no kale!), beets, and chunks of hard-boiled egg—made for a perfect lighter meal when paired with an appetizer like spinach and yam quesadillas or the samosa-style hush puppies. The hush puppies were especially great—they're fried balls of curried potatoes, peas, and carrots drizzled with a little agave nectar. YUM.
Unfortunately, the kitchen hasn't yet mastered the end of the meal. A thick, wide slice of sweet potato pie was delivered to our table with the orange filling oozing out over the pale white crust. The filling was far too soft to hold its shape, even though it was frigidly cold. The flavor was good—squashy, full of warm autumnal spices, and not too sweet—but the texture was too gooey, and the vegan crust was flavorless, gummy, and 100 percent not golden brown like a good crust should be. There are some things even the best vegan bakers just can't accomplish, and a really great piecrust is one of those things. Meanwhile, St. Dames's new pomegranate margarita—with jalapeño-infused tequila and muddled pomegranate seeds—might make a minor miracle of a dessert. (They'll make it virgin on request.)
This article has been updated to reflect the fact that cashews are not technically nuts but seeds. See? Vegans do love their seeds!