Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Owl House in Rochester...

Vegan, Plant-Based Dining At Its Finest

It recently occurred to me that I’ve been maintaining this blog since 2011, and I’ve never written anything resembling a restaurant review. As my wife and I have gradually transitioned from the Standard American Diet (SAD) to more of a whole-foods, plant-based diet (…WFPBD???), the experience of eating out has changed dramatically. While many mainstream restaurants have entrees on their menus which can technically be considered ‘vegetarian’, most offerings are simply unimaginative, uninspired afterthoughts. Like Pasta Primavera… a boring heap of white noodles topped with a handful of over-steamed vegetables, swimming in butter, oil, or cheese sauce. Or the token Veggie Burger… a frozen, manufactured pattie made of soy protein isolates and leftover vegetable chunk rejects. This hardly qualifies as gourmet dining.

However, through patience and perseverance, along with a bit of imagination, we’ve discovered a few strategies for ordering plant-based meals at mainstream restaurants, along with a few unique establishments that offer an impressive array of vegan and plant-based entrees.

The Owl House, which is located at 75 Marshall St just off of Monroe Ave, is a restaurant that easily qualifies as the latter, offering up some of the best vegan, plant-based dining in all of Rochester.

They also have a lot of great beer on tap.

The establishment occupies both floors of a two-story house, with a patio in the rear for outdoor seating during the warmer months. The first floor is home to a cozy bar near the front entrance, along with a collection of intimately-arranged tables scattered throughout the rest of the room. And by ‘intimately-arranged’, I mean they’re close enough that you can easily reach over your neighbor to the right and grab a Buffalo Cauli Wing from the platter of an unsuspecting diner two tables over. In other words, if you need a night out to discuss an upcoming drug deal or another matter of a private nature, you may want to request a seat upstairs.

The Buffalo Cauli Wings...  are...  FANTASTIC!

Speaking of upstairs, the tables on the second floor are spread out a bit farther apart to allow for a more private meal. In our experience, we’ve always been seated upstairs when we have reservations, whereas a downstairs table was our destination on the lone occasion we dropped in unannounced. Whether this is by design or simply a coincidence, we always try to make reservations for weekend evenings, as we prefer the upstairs seating.

A few weeks ago, my wife realized that they’d changed up their menu, so we decided to sample several of their newest offerings and made reservations for the upcoming Friday evening.

For appetizers, we ordered the Maryland Style Old Bay Tempeh Cakes and the Battered Smoked Tofu Nuggets, which were both absolutely superb. The Tempeh Cakes rivaled any other ‘fishy’, plant-based cakes that we’ve tried, and the Tofu Nuggets were tender and crispy, and yet, they were not dripping or weighed down in the excess grease and oil that so often accompanies most fried food. In addition, they were served atop a delectable cabbage slaw, which had a lively, spicy kick I wasn’t expecting.

Horseradish, I initially suspected… but our server later confirmed that it was Dijon mustard.

Maryland Style Old Bay Tempeh Cakes

Battered Smoked Tofu Nuggets

As for dinner, my wife opted for the Seared King Oyster Mushrooms, while I chose the Los Tacos with Cauliflower. When our server set the plate in front of my wife, we thought there had been a mistake, as there appeared to be a half dozen over-sized scallops arranged over a bed of asparagus. But she assured us that the scallop-like beasts on the platter before us were, indeed, mushrooms. Apparently, our observation was a common one among other diners. After just a few tastes, we both agreed that her entree was delicious. The mushrooms were tender, nicely-seasoned, and topped with a pesto that was, again, light on the oil and grease but heavy on the flavor.

Aside from cauliflower, my tacos were stuffed with tomatillo salsa and shaved radish… a combination that worked very well. While the tacos themselves were rather small, there were three of them on the plate, and they were served with a side of bean salad that was filling and surprisingly tasty. As expected, I made a mess of my main course, with taco detritus and salsa juice dripping down my face and fingers all over my plate as I ate.
“That’s disgusting,” my wife remarked, appalled by my primitive, slovenly display. “…and so are you.”
I enthusiastically nodded my head in agreement, as I continued to brutally torture the tacos on the plate before me.

Los Tacos w/Roasted Cauliflower

Seared King Oyster Mushrooms

As usual, the collection of artisan microbrews on tap was extensive, and our server was extremely generous in offering us samples so we’d be sure to enjoy our eventual beverages of choice. To round out our meal, we shared a piece of tofu cheesecake topped with blueberry glaze. Even in our meat-eating days, I wasn’t the biggest fan of cheesecake, and I’d still prefer a good fruit pie or cobbler. But I do have to admit that the slice we shared was pretty good. Inspired as always, it only took my wife three days to bust out the cookbook and make a homemade version.

Vegan Tofu Cheesecake

So, are there any disappointing aspects to this wonderfully eclectic establishment?

Well, for starters, the front of the beer menu is hard to read because the word ‘BEER’ is written sideways. The first time we visited, it took me almost twenty minutes to find the damn thing. Only after my wife happened to inadvertently tilt the menu on its side did I realize that the word ‘BEER’ was scrawled across the front.

The beer menu shown in the picture above is actually tilted over on its side.
When the menu is held upright, the word 'BEER' is indiscernible.

As for the appetizers, I do find that the portions tend to be a bit scant, and we’ve basically resigned ourselves to ordering two each time we visit, just to be sure we don’t go hungry. Of course, my wife has pointed out to me on multiple occasions that this probably has less to do with the portion size, and more to do with the fact that I barely make any effort to actually chew my food or even come up for air as I wolf down multiple globs within a span of mere seconds in grotesque, gluttonous fashion. Perhaps she has a point. Regardless, we have no problem ordering multiple appetizers, as this gives us a chance to enjoy an even greater variety of plant-based, culinary goodness with every visit.

Any of you burger and steak lovers starting to get nervous? Relax… and take a deep breath. While the selection of vegan options is impressive, the menu also caters to omnivores and meat-lovers, offering a number of entrees featuring chicken, beef, pork, and seafood.

Having visited several times during the past year, we’ve noticed that the menu undergoes occasional changes. Whether this is a result of seasonal and local availability of certain ingredients, or simply a function of the meandering mood, tastes, and inspiration of the chef(s), I’m all in favor of seeing new entrees and specials on the menu each time I visit.

And now, on a completely personal and somewhat selfish note, I have two simple requests…
  • The Gentle Lentil… the best lentil burger I’ve ever had anywyere… WHERE THE HELL DID IT GO!?!?!? BRING IT BACK… PRETTY PLEEEEEEEEAAAASE!?!?!? 
  • And please, I beg of you… Don’t ever… EVER… ditch the Buffalo Cauli Wings. These are by far the best cauliflower wings available anywhere. 
OK… Tantrum over. Not a big deal, really. I suppose it’s a good idea to give the classics an occasional break, and I’m sure the Gentle Lentil will make its triumphant return at some point.

Bottom line… The Owl House is definitely worth a visit. Whether you’re into sausage and steak or tempeh and tofu, this eclectic little gem has plenty on the menu to satisfy your tastes, as well as your appetite. And even if you are into sausage and steak, give the Smoked Tofu Nachos or The Hot Beav Burger a try. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Also worth noting, the Owl House serves brunch on Saturdays and Sundays from 11am to 3pm, and there are a handful of vegan items available. We haven’t gone for brunch just yet, but I’ve heard it’s fantastic, and I’ll report back once we give it a try.

They also have a lot of great beer on tap.

Visit their website at the link below to view their full menu and make online reservations:

Directions to The Owl House

To get to the Owl House from the Village Green in Bar Harbor, take Mt. Desert St west, turn right onto Eden St/Rt 3, turn right onto Myrick St, turn left onto Downeast Hwy/Rt 1, turn right to merge onto I-395 toward I-95 Bangor, take exit 1A to merge onto I-95 S toward Newport, take exit 103 on the right ontoI-295 S toward ME-9/ME-126, continue onto I-95 S, take exit 59 on the right onto I-495 S toward Worcester, take exit 25B to merge onto I-290 W toward Worcester, take exit 7 to merge onto I-90 toward MA-12, keep left to merge onto I-90 W towards Springfield/Albany, keep left on Berkshire Spur W, take exit 22-61 to merge onto I-87 N toward Albany, continue on NY Thruway toward Buffalo, continue onto I-90 W, take exit 45 to merge onto I-490 toward Rochester, take exit 17 onto Goodman St, take a slight right turn onto Broadway, turn left onto Monroe Ave, turn left onto Marshall St, and the Owl House is almost immediately on the left. You can find on-street parking up and down Marshall Street. If you average 73 MPH and only make short stops to use the restroom, the trip should take you anywhere between 10 ½ and 11 hours.

The Buffalo Tempeh on French Bread...  not currently on the menu.

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