I've been a vegetarian for exactly one day in my entire life. In eighth grade, I had a big crush on "Jenny," a classmate who had been a vegetarian since early childhood. Jenny—choke!—didn't return my adoration, choosing to keep me solely as a friend. In retrospect, the fact that I was enormously overweight, not to mention tremendously boring, probably had something to do with this. The smart thing to do would have been to employ sensible regimens of dieting and exercise, but that meant too much work on my part. I assumed that, as the only vegetarian in our junior high school, she would notice me if I, too, became a vegetarian. Surely my newfound skills at herbilingus would woo her.
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The next day, I told Jenny how good I felt, not having consumed meat for an entire 5-hour period—13 hours including sleep!—and that I had seen the light and was swearing off meat forever. The day after that, my parents took me to McDonald's and I broke down and ate a Double Quarter Pounder with cheese. I never got anywhere with Jenny and she's now a terrorist-fearing Christian Republican who's married to a cop with an auto-detailing business on the side.
Ever since, I've retained a grudging respect for vegetarians: They have a moral edge on me, and, in a steel-cage battle of virtues, they would always emerge as the better person. This guilt's never been enough to get me to stop eating random parts of pigs and cows and chickens.
But a weird thing happened when I moved to Seattle eight years ago. Because many of my newfound friends were vegetarians, I started eating at vegetarian restaurants, and now many of my favorite places to eat don't have an ounce of animal tissue on the menu.
Hillside Quickie (U-District: 4106 Brooklyn Ave NE, 632-3037; Capitol Hill: 324 15th Ave E, 325-6429) is a perfect example of why I love good vegan cooking. Their Really Big Burger ($7.25) is a big-as-your-head mound of house-smoked tofu, fresh vegetables, and a sloppy mix of condiments. What makes it outrageous is the mound of vegan potato salad that tops the burger. In any other situation, eating a pound-and-a-half worth of burger slathered with mayonnaise and potatoes would be the kind of gastronomic disaster that could leave a man clutching at his stomach for a full 24 hours.
Quickie's burger doesn't leave an eater uncomfortably full in the way that a Red Robin monstrosity would. Instead of the unpleasant sensation of digesting a bronze bust of Don Rickles, the Really Big Burger leaves you satisfied, feeling as though you actually added something to your health and your day. It's a meal that feels like it leaves your body in better condition than it was in before you ate it.
Cafe Flora (2901 E Madison St, 325-9100) is similarly healthy and satiating. The portobello Wellington ($18) is a saucy and suitably heavy dish, served with a side of the house's mashed potatoes that are as good as any carnal house in Seattle has to offer. Flora's decor exemplifies the pure joy of eating in a vegetarian restaurant: There are no cheesy neon signs, no furniture that looks like it came from IKEA.
Most vegetarian places, from Hillside Quickie's no-frills interiors and handmade signs to Flora's upscale atrium vibe, understand that where you eat is just as important as what you eat. I've seen a lot of fancy steak houses that ruin things by surrounding their plates of charred muscle with too much lacquered black plastic. Every bit of furniture and decoration in vegetarian restaurants seems thoughtfully arranged.
The one thing that just about every vegetarian joint lacks, though, is the gravitas of fine dining. Where's the vegan Canlis? The casualness and up-front attitude of most vegetarian places isn't the right kind of arena for an intimate, romantic evening: You want enough mystery in your surroundings to add a sense of adventure to your big date. That's where Carmelita (7314 Greenwood Ave N, 706-7703) comes in.
Carmelita brings a welcome show-offiness to vegetarian cuisine, the same sort of snobby menu with a pedigree that makes a ritzy dining experience audaciously fun. No other restaurant in town would be willing to try something as crazy as the savory corn panna cotta ($11), a cold corn-pudding appetizer about the size and shape of a can of tuna. It's challenging and unlike anything I've had at a vegetarian restaurant, but it works. The Moroccan chickpea crepe ($17), too, is a main course with the good sense to be subtle in one area (the crepe) and spicy in another (the chickpeas) and let the flavors fight each other for ascendancy.
The less-sour-than-acidic tamarind ginger lemonade ($3.50) and the light-as-air roasted cauliflower fritters ($10) are delightful precisely because they confound your expectations. Carmelita understands that fancy dining is all about the rope-a-dope, surprising the diner at every turn before delivering the head-on coup de grâce of a truly exceptional dessert. The slow-baked meringue chocolate mousse ($7) and the chocolate muck muck ($8), a dense fallen cake coursing with chocolate syrup, are as light and as rich, respectively, as anyone could hope, bringing the experience to a satisfying climax. This is a meal, in short, that will get you laid.