The terribly charming exterior of The Owl House, a vegan-/vegetarian-friendly and sometimes-gluten-free eatery located in Rochester, New York.
Happy World Vegan Day! Happy VeganMoFo! Happy happy joy joy. Now if only the Missouri weather would read the shiny happy vegan memo. (Seriously, sun, my faux-you lamp is busted and I’ve no idea how much of this yuckiness I can tolerate. Come out, come out, wherever you are…)
Ahem. Anyway. If the pre-veganmofo tweet/buzz is any indication, it seems that most every mofo’er has a theme this year. Being, shall we say, not culinarily inclined, my “theme” (if I must choose one) is reviews: books, mostly (I have almost a dozen titles in the queue, oy vey, and veganmofo seems the perfect excuse to knock a few of ’em off the list), but also kitchen gadgets and restaurants!
And so, to kick off the fourth annual VeganMoFo, I present to you: my first-ever restaurant review! During the recent trip I took to my hometown of Rochester, New York, my family and I visited The Owl House, a new-ish eatery with plenty of vegan and vegetarian options. (Cue: vacation photos! Don’t say I didn’t warn you!) Let the mofo’ing begin!
The who: My family, including my sister, Michelle (a vegetarian/aspiring vegan; imho, “freegan” is the label that she wears best); my brother, Mike (a shameless omnivore/carnist); my father, Steve (a longtime vegetarian); my mother, Wendy (a guilty-but-stubborn omnivore); and my grandmother, Vita (an omnivore who’s not altogether ignorant re: all things vegetarian, since she raised my father and all) – and myself, of course.
The when: mid-September 2010, on a Thursday night, just before the dinner rush.
The where: 75 Marshall Street, Rochester, NY 14607.
The Owl House’s too-cute menu, which is also available on its website.
While my sister (who currently lives in Sacramento) and I were in Rochester, our mom was eager to try out all kinds of “vegan stuff” (here, loosely defined as “animal-friendly”) with us: meals, bakeries, restaurants – sanctuaries, even. Unfortunately, it proved tough to make plans, let alone keep them (so busy was she caring for some of our older relatives), but we were able to visit The Owl House. I guess it helps that Thursday night was Dinner with Grandma Vita Night, and since her schedule was rather tight as well, rescheduling was not an option. So anyhow, this was a family dinner in which the non-veg members were more than happy to accommodate their vegan and vegetarian counterparts.
Not that this involved much compromise on their part: The Owl House is not an exclusively vegan or even vegetarian eatery. At best, it’s what you might call vegan- or vegetarian- friendly, with options for each demographic aplenty (e.g., plenty of tofu-for-meat and Daiya cheese substitutions, a vegan B.L.T., and a number of NOMy, healthy, anything-but-iceberg salads). On the downside, the menu is also heavy on meat-based dishes, with items like the Big Licky (Braised Pork Shoulder, gross!) and Smoked Jerky (Beef, gross!).
I got no small kick of the following disclaimer, which graces the bottom of the menu: “Consuming raw or undercooked meat, poultry, seafood, shellfish or eggs may increase the risk of foodborne illnesses.” While I could deconstruct the language employed from here to Nova Scotia, it’s not every day you see an anti -meat and -eggs warning displayed so prominently on an eatery’s menu. We could read it without a magnifying glass, yo!
Anyhow, my mom tipped us off to The Owl House soon after our arrival, after which my sister and I hopped online and spent a good half hour drooling over the menu – the prospect of vegan mozzarella sticks in particular. It’s a somewhat new addition to downtown Rochester, having only opened in the past year (so new is it that Happy Cow isn’t yet hip to the place, or at least it wasn’t when I was researching the trip in late summer). Apparently The Owl House is located in the same building that, at one point in time, was home to The Atomic Eggplant.
Let’s begin with the setting, since that’s where my rambling has brought us. As you can see in the photos, the restaurant is located in a converted detached, two-story house (as are many of the businesses along that block, if memory serves). It’s a charming setup, cozy but not cramped; many of the interior walls have been removed to make the rooms more spacious, and overall it lends the place a real indy feel. Downstairs there’s a bar, with limited seating, I think; upstairs is a larger dining area, with ample lighting, eclectic artwork, and windows overlooking Marshall Street.
We arrived a little before the dinner rush. While the restaurant was surprisingly empty upon our arrival, it was packed (with a line that stretched outside!) by the time we left two hours later. As the place filled up, the volume and activity rose steadily, with personal space taking a corresponding dive. Probably not the best place for a romantic date, Juliet (at least, not on a Thursday night!).
Now, the food. It’s all about the food, isn’t it?
We started with – what else – starters!
I ordered the mozzarella sticks with Daiya cheese:
Vegan Mozzarella Sticks (Panko & Herb Crusted Daiya Vegan Cheese) with Roasted Garlic Marinara
My sister opted for the baked nachos with smoked tofu and Daiya cheese:
Owl’s Baked Nachos with House Smoked Tofu, Daiya Vegan Cheese, Tortilla Chips, Salsa Verde, and Black Bean & Corn Salsa
And my father chose the Rosemary & Cracked Black Pepper Fries:
Rosemary & Cracked Black Pepper Fries
Mike also got a starter, but it was something involving meat, so I didn’t really take note. In fact, the same can be said of all the meat-based dishes, so let’s just ignore those from here on out. Deal?
While waiting for the main course to arrive, we all split the starters amongst us – my mother and grandmother included. All of the vegan appetizers were a hit, even with the omnivores: the baked nachos, yummy; the cracked pepper fries, delish; the mozzarella sticks, to die for. (Not literally – a fact that only increases their awesomeness!)
I could have gotten four orders of the mozzarella sticks and left a happy and satisfied vegan. For serious, they were one of the highlights of my trip and OH SWEET DOG I MUST LEARN HOW TO MAKE THESE MYSELF SO I CAN ORDER A FOOD SERVICE BRICK OF DAIYA CHEESE AND SPEND A WEEKEND BINGING ON NOTHING BUT CRISPY FRIED BREADCRUMBS AND MELTY MOZZARELLA DAIYA BECAUSE IF THERE’S A HEAVEN, SURELY THIS IS IT, MY PERSONAL CULINARY LAZINESS BE DAMNED.
So. On to the main course(s)!
With much hemming and hawing, I opted for the B.L.T. with Fakin’ Bacon:
Paramount B.L.T. with Fakin’ Bacon and Roasted Garlic Vegenaise
Wanting something different, Michelle went with the Lentil Burger:
Housemade Lentil Burger with Sprouts, Tomato, Red Onion, Sour Pickles, Roasted Garlic Vegenaise and Daiya Cheese
And Dad decided to get his NOM on with the Hummus & Roasted Vegetable sandwich:
Hummus & Roasted Vegetable – Housemade Lemon Hummus, Roasted Farmers Market Vegetables and Baby Arugula on Multigrain Bread
As with the starters, the vegan dishes were crazy good. Michelle, Dad and I sampled from one another’s plates, and gave all the meals our varying-in-fussiness stamps of approval. Having never tried Fakin’ Bacon before (OMG THE HORRAS!), I found that I prefer Lightlife’s Smart Bacon, but other than this one minor quibble, I was more than satisfied with my dinner. (Though nothing could top the VEGAN DAIYA MOZZARELLA STICKS!, for better or worse.)
The only real complaint came from Mike, whose Pepsi was flat, refills included. Weird, right?
As a depressing aside – and in breaking with our just-struck deal (sorry!) – my mom ordered the non-vegan B.L.T. with the Applewood Smoked Bacon (cue: Bacon-loving Hipsters Can Kiss My Vegan Ass), for which I unleashed no small amount of guilt-tripping. And it was rather easy, too, since she’s sympathetic to animal welfare arguments to begin with. I only wish I’d wore my “Bacon Had a Mom” tee instead of Food Fight’s “What Kind of Asshole Eats a Lamb?” design. (No lamb on the menu!) Ah, well. She will come around. Oh yes, mark my words, she will come around.
Q: What kind of asshole eats a lamb?
A: The one on the left!
Joking, joking. Back at my parents’ house for after-dinner cocktails,
my grandmother Vita and I relax on the couch.
As for the service, it was…good. Our waiter clearly had his hands full, but he was polite, personable and accommodating. And with my family, that’s saying something! At one point, my grandmother asked him to take a group photo of us – and then spent a good minute explaining the how-to’s of her camera. (Pssst: it’s a disposable.) He was amused.
Finally, the bill. It was pricey, though not as high as my sister and I guessed. We were able to feed six people for about $80, before tips. More than I usually spend, but then I’m a frugal vegan. (The mozzarella sticks? Worth every penny. Yes, I will still be waxing nostalgic about them during VeganMoFo V!)
And so I leave you with some of the silly, non-gourmet food critic photo outtakes from our trip. Kansas City is home to several vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants – including Eden Alley Cafe, Cafe Seed and the Garden of Eatin’ – so perhaps we’ll do this again. It was fun, don’t you think?
My father holds up the ridiculously small salt and pepper shakers, in front of which he’s propped up my mother’s glasses. Um, yeah. I have no idea, either.
The Owl House at night. Lights from both within and without the house-turned-restaurant cast a warm glow over the building.
Mike and Meesh (my brother and sister) exchange a hug on the sidewalk outside The Owl House.
My Super Mario-lookalike father mugs for the camera while my bespeckled mother reviews the menu with my grandmother Vita, who sits just out of frame.
My father and his mother gaze out onto the street from the front, first-story window of The Owl House. Probably they’re cursing and/or mocking our snail-like pace and/or excessive photo-taking.