The Garden of Eatin': VegiTerranean

In the Pretenders' "My City Was Gone," Akron native Chrissie Hynde laments that shopping malls have replaced Ohio's farms and Muzak fills the air from Seneca to Cuyahoga Falls. Last October, Hynde answered her own battle cry with VegiTerranean, an Akron restaurant that blends vegan and Italian with a healthy dose of rock 'n' roll.

The restaurant's location in the Northside Lofts building offers an expansive view of the Cuyahoga Valley and towpath. While the exterior view is nothing but green, the interior is all rock 'n' roll — and definitely all Hynde.

The music geek in me wanted to believe the black, sleek décor was inspired by Hynde's signature black eyeliner, and the chain curtain separating the dining area from the café area was a nod to her punk rock days in London. The soundtrack ran the gamut from blues to indie rock to techno, not a trace of Muzak to be heard.

But enough about the atmosphere. Let's take a moment to ponder the psychological questions raised by VegiTerranean. Can we Northeast Ohioans bury our love for meat and cheese? Will hardcore vegans embrace a restaurant that mimics traditional animal-based dishes? Can Italians handle their age-old dishes being stripped apart and reconstructed? And finally, what about those of us who desire a vegetarian lifestyle, but can't part with our leather shoes? Can we break bread and drink wine under the same roof? Well, according to the restaurant's tagline, world peace starts in the kitchen.

Leading diners down the path to gastronomic serenity is executive chef J. Scot Jones, who explains the VegiTerranean concept as "simply backing out the animal proteins and replacing them with plant-based proteins." Jones spent 10 years in the kitchen at Johnny's on Fulton, so he understands the importance of animal protein and fat in a dish. But as a classically trained Italian and French chef, he also knows that impeccable seasoning can take a dish from good to memorable, so he uses fresh herbs and incorporates techniques such as caramelizing and roasting. Plus, he largely fills his menu with ingredients from local farms and food stores.

We started with the stuffed Italian banana peppers ($9) filled with an herb risotto and soy mozzarella and topped with a basil lime sauce. Our guests, a little timid of the peppers, were pleased that the smoothness of the risotto and the soothing finish of the lime helped temper the spiciness of the dish. And for those of us not afraid of a little heat in our food, the risotto and lime didn't take away from the spicy kick the peppers offered.

The spiced tomatoes and chickpeas ($9), an Indian-inspired dish, walked a tightrope between heat and sweet, balancing spicy chickpeas with tomatoes, tofu feta and fresh arugula. We were also pleased to find the accompanying crustini wasn't overly crusty— it had a little give, making it much easier to scoop up and balance the chickpeas with each bite.

Salads are offered in both small and large portions ($6/$9). The classic Caesar seemed like the perfect first test for Jones' "backing out" mantra. Could he really remove the anchovy, Parmesan and egg yolk from a Caesar? Surprisingly, yes.

The Caesar mimicked the real deal perfectly, with a smoky flavor that gave the classic salad an unusual twist. He replaced the anchovy flavor with smoked dulse (a variety of seaweed) and subbed Rawmesan (ground walnuts) for Parmesan. The dressing was a light mixture of lemon juice, garlic and Vegenaise, an egg-free, dairy-free mayonnaise alternative.

Soup was also on the menu, a welcome addition for a vegetarian friend of mine who spent years ignoring the typical chicken- or beef-stock varieties on restaurant menus. She was thrilled to find the minestrone (cup $4/bowl $6) as hearty and flavorful as she remembered from her former meat-eating life.

Entrees at VegiTerranean feature Gardein. After becoming popular on the West Coast, the protein — a soy and wheat concoction — is beginning to make an appearance at restaurants throughout the U.S. It's available in different varieties, and VegiTerranean uses those that mimic the texture and flavor of meat.

The Gardein chicken marsala ($19) really did capture the flavors of a traditional chicken marsala, but the large piece of "chicken" seemed to overpower its accompanying side dishes.

The baked Gardein chicken risotto ($18) was a perfect balance of rich flavors with chunks of "chicken" mixed with a creamy risotto, asparagus and roasted tomatoes and topped with soy mozzarella and Rawmesan. It was a comfort food dish that left me craving pajamas and snowy weather.

The Gardein steak scallopini au poivre ($19), which smelled fresh off the grill, was flavored with peppercorns and vegan sherry demi and served over escarole and white bean mashed potatoes. And while the dish was flavorful, the texture of the Gardein steak more closely resembled a grilled portobello mushroom and will probably not quite fill the void for red meat lovers who are searching for a more healthful option.

In our favorite pasta dish, the penne gratin with cashew cream ($14), the "cream" consisted of pureed cashews that had been soaked and boiled. Leeks, wild mushrooms, asparagus and pine nuts were a thoughtful combination to a dish that could have easily been overpowered with rich flavor. However, the cashew cream combined with the pine nuts gave the sauce a subtle nutty flavor, which was highlighted by the mild sweetness of the leeks.

The Ghoulardi ($12) was another crowd pleaser, a spicy pizza topped with a mountain of banana peppers, olives, mushrooms and red onion.

Desserts are $8 each, and may vary. My chocoholic friends found the warm chocolate cake dry and gritty from sugar, but I was thrilled with the strawberry cheesecake, which melted in my mouth and had a thick graham cracker crust.

Our servers on both visits to the restaurant were pleasant, knowledgeable and did not rush us. However, upon arriving for the second visit, we were seated at a makeshift table in the café area of the restaurant, with a view of the fax machine and trash cans. It's apparent that on busy nights this area is used as overflow, so request the main dining room when making reservations. When we asked for a different table, we got a shrug of the shoulders and "It's Saturday night" as our only remedy.

VegiTerranean's quest for peace in the kitchen is on the right track. Meat lovers, vegetarians and vegans all have a place here, regardless of their feelings about the food chain. And best of all, no animals were harmed in the writing of this review.

VegiTerranean, Northside Lofts, 21 Furnace St., Akron, (330) 374-5550; lunch 11 a.m. - 3 p.m., dinner 5 - 10 p.m. (cafe open at 9 a.m., bar open until 1 a.m.); Sun noon - 8 p.m.
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