The Girl Who Ate Everything

Blogging about food and whatever since 2004.

Vegetarian Restaurants That Underwhelmed Me For Various Reasons: Sacred Chow, Candle Cafe, and Counter

tristan is cookin
Tristan's cooking! Nom nom!

I like vegetarian food. Or some of it. But every now and then when I eat at a highly praised vegetarian restaurant I can't tell if I have to be a vegetarian to fully appreciate it. "Vegetarians love this place, thus I CAN TOO! I...can...I...want a pork chop."

My favorite places to get vegetarian food are be Asian (mainly Chinese and Indian), natural food stores with vegetarian-friendly delis, (Life Thyme and Earth Matters being my two favorites), Tiny's Giant Sandwich Shop, or my kitchen when Tristan is cooking (I'd almost always rather eat whatever random stew of spicy deliciousness he cobbles together than go out to eat vegan food). Exclusively vegetarian or vegan restaurants that fall outside these categories usually leave me wanting more. For the high(er than I'm used to) prices these places tend to charge I expect to eat something pretty awesome, but instead I usually feel underwhelmed, like something is missing (and that "something" isn't animal-derived).

In the past two months I've eaten at Sacred Chow, Candle Cafe, and Counter, three vegetarian restaurants I had known about for years but hadn't tried until I went out with vegetarian friends. Here's a quick overview of my thoughts about these restaurants and a few notes about those thoughts:

  • I only ate at each restaurant once, which doesn't necessarily give a full impression of their dishes
  • ...My impression being that they're not bad, but not as good as I would've expected from the reviews I read
  • For the prices they charged, I expected something better
  • I know it costs a lot to run a restaurant, and their ingredients may be better than most others, but the food should still taste...better
  • Since I tend to eat cheaply so I can pay my bills without going in debt, pricey food has to taste REALLY FREAKIN' AWESOME for me to think it's worth it (and I will happily pay for REALLY FREAKIN' AWESOME food). Richer people may have different standards
  • I know that there's plenty of so-so, overpriced food in the "omnivore-friendly restaurants" category
  • My idea of what tastes good may not be the same as what vegetarians think tastes good
  • Vegetarians, please don't hate meee

My next entry will be about vegetarian/vegan eateries that I like, if that helps at all.

Sacred Chow: Small Plates of Meh

Sacred Chow
Sacred Chow

While waiting outside Sacred Chow for Tristan—neither of us had ever eaten there, so I suggested we try it—a guy came out the restaurant and walked...towards me.

"Are you roboppy?"

Colin, an ardent bicyclist, vegan, and fan of TGWAE (WOO, VEGANS LIKE ME?!), recognized me and my hulking camera. Ahh, that damn thing always gives me away. But I was lucky he came out to save me from ordering anything that sucked.

"I head good things about this place, but my meal wasn't that great," he explained. While looking at a menu he pointed at the dishes that sounded better than they tasted. "You have to try Candle Cafe; it's my favorite restaurant." We did end up going there later; you'll see, a bit further down the page. Or you could just scroll down if you're impatient.

tristan wants food
Three tiers of nom nom nom

Tristan and I shared four dishes, starting with three small places for $15 (each one is $5.25 or $5.50 on its own).


As we are both soba lovers, we had to get the cold sliced ginger soba noodles coated in spicy peanut sauce, topped with crushed peanuts Overall, it tasted okay, nothing memorable. The portion was smaller than I would've expected, even if it was called a "small plate." This was my favorite dish, but that may because I like all things soba.

Curried Steamed Broccoli

Curried steamed broccoli was also fine. I like steamed broccoli no matter what, unless it's overcooked, which these weren't. I don't recall much curry flavor.

Roasted Indonesian Tempeh

Roasted Indonesian tempeh consisted of eight small tempeh strips roasted to a semi-crisp and a salad drizzled in some kind of dressing, apparently not very memorable. I mostly recall liking the crisp and chewy texture of the tempeh, which didn't have much flavor aside from a faint nuttiness. Another "this was okay, but I don't really remember it, oops" kind of dish.

Root Vegetable Latkes (pancakes)
Root vegetable pancakes

The root vegetables latkes with Indonesian date butter were my least favorite of the four dishes. I wasn't a fan of the texture—kind of tough, like it was undercooked—and even though I piled on the date butter, it didn't add much flavor. While they may have wanted to use root vegetables to be more creative/nutritious, I think it would've been better if they had just used potatoes. Which would then be...hash browns.

Tristan and I both felt like Sacred Chow was overpriced for being just okay—not a place we'd feel inclined to revisit. At least, we didn't think those four dishes were worth $20.25. Perhaps they were using very good ingredients, but that doesn't mean much if they're turned into underwhelming dishes. If you want a variety of awesome vegetarian (and maybe some vegan) dishes, I'd recommend going to Westville where a plate of four sides is only $13 and is way tastier than Sacred Chow.

I hate saying bad stuff about a restaurant. I heard the desserts are good. Eh?

Candle Cafe: Good, But Somewhat Pricey

Candle Cafe is my favorite of the three restaurants in this post. That doesn't mean I love it (it's on the pricey side), but if I wanted to bring a vegan or vegetarian friend out for a meal a step nicer than casual, this would be a candidate.


Colin and I shared a limonade, a smoothie of lemon, lime, agave nectar, and ice. It was super sour, although that's better than being super sweet. Dilute it with some water and you've got more smoothie with less mouth puckering.

Soba Noodle Salad
Colin: "This salad sort of let me down in the taste department. also, there were flecks of pork in it. what the?? JK! =D"

Yup, it's another soba dish, this time a soba noodle salad with ginger grilled tofu, shiitake mushrooms, edamame, julienne carrots, radish, and mesclun with wasabi dressing. It was tasty enough. Just not $15 tasty. My favorite vegan soba salad-type dish is still from Earth Matters. (Annnd just so you know, there are pricey salads that taste like heaven. The salad I ate at Diner probably cost around $15, if not more, but it was amazingly delicious. "Cue the angel choir" type thing. I'm pretty sure it was vegan friendly, unless the dressing had pork fat in it.)

Tuscan Lasagna

Tuscan lasagna atop sautéed greens was layered with grilled zucchini, peppers, onions, tofu basil ricotta, soy cheese, and seitan ragout and topped with tomato truffle sauce. Tofu basil "ricotta" may not taste exactly like ricotta, but...I liked it. Actually I think I liked this lasagna better than most meat lasagnas. Except for the $16 price tag.

Cajun Seitan Burger innards
Colin: "This is what we in the industry call a sandwich sideskirt"

Colin was especially fond of the cajun seitan burger, pan-seared seitan, steamed greens, caramelized onions, and avocado on toasted focaccia with ancho chili aioli and coleslaw. I think the pan-seared seitan is about as close as you can get to a breaded pork cutlet. But without the umami flavor.

ancho chili aioli
Colin: "Ancho chili aioli - say it three times fast! what's that, you can't? SORRY"

Which is why you need this: ancho chili aioli. Creamy mayonnaise-like goo! Tastes garlicky and somewhat..chili-y. Slather it on.


And there's Colin behind the scary baby face-decorated package. (It was a gift for me. The thing inside the package, that is—not a picture of a baby face. ;) YAY COLIN!)

The food tasted fine, but for the price (even if organic) I would've a little bit expected more. Any sandwich that costs $14 better be addictively good and the only place I can recommend for that is Blue Ribbon Bakery. Unfortunately, they probably have one vegan sandwich at the most, with more choices for vegetarians.

Counter: If You Want a Sundae on a Plate


Counter specializes in serving organic wine and cocktails and "vegetarian haute cuisine." Charles invited me to eat there with his friends Diana and Alison, primarily dessert. But the rest of us were hungrier than that, so we also ate some savory dishes.

italian farmhouse panini
Sandwich time

Diana and I shared the Italian farmhouse panini of walnut-lentil paté, plum tomato, and rosemary aioli on ciabatta bread. The sandwich was good—the bread was crusty and slightly chewy and the filling was...creamy. I couldn't tell you, "Mm, bursting with walnut and lentil goodness," but it had some kind of flavor of non-blandless, whatever the combination of walnut and lentils tastes like. My main objection is that the crustiness of the bread was unbalanced with the creamy paté, which couldn't help but squish out from the force of biting through the bread. Whether it was worth $14 depends on how desperately you want a tasty vegetarian sandwich.

east side burger

Alison ordered the East Side Burger made of wild mushroom paté, housemade seitan, and fresh herbs, served with "pommes frites." I didn't try the burger; Alison gave the impression that it was pretty good. And although I know it's a legitimate name for a type of french fry, it would be more descriptive to call them potato wedges than pommes frites. Admittedly, it doesn't sound as classy.

trio of stuff
Trio of stuffs

We all shared a selection of three mezze ($15), from front to back: zaalok (roasted pepper & eggplant caviar); corn beignets with remoulade sauce; panisse with aioli (chickpea fries). Each one was fine, but not awesome, like a flavor was missing. Eggplant spread wasn't eggplant-y enough? Corn fritters weren't very corny? Chickpea fries taste mostly like...starch? Maybe I'm being too critical.

Gooey Pecan Hot Fudge Sundae
Sundae...fallen over

The gooey hot fudge sundae with wild berries and chocolate crème anglaise sounded better than it actually was. And we had two orders of the stuff to go through because Diana and I both wanted one. The first order that came out had toppled over; otherwise, it looks like this. Either way, it taste the same, which is "alright." Despite the name, the fudge was not very gooey. Also, I think it makes more sense to put a sundae in a tall cup instead of a shallow container made of phyllo dough (HUUUH?)'s hard to spoon up all the goodness when its ON A FLAT PLATE. There's a reason that there are special glasses for sundaes. Amirite? And when it's in a cup all the goo and sauce can collect at the bottom so you can scoop it up with your spoon. On a plate, you can't do nuttin'. Not easily at least. Unless you want to lick the plate. Which I didn't.

Melt-in-your-mouth Chocolate Tart
Chocolate tart

The melt-in-your-mouth chocolate tart wasn't bad. As the name says, the dense chocolate and nut-heavy filling was melt-in-your-mouth.

chocolate fondue
Chocolate fondue

The sauce of the chocolate fondue with Valrhona and Callebaut chocolate, apple chunks, coffee-walnut cake and something else (I don't remember eating marzipan-filled dates like the menu says) hadn't completely melted when it came to our table, so we poked and stared at the semi-liquidy chocolate goo as the little candle slowly did its heating business. I'll refrain from commenting much on the fondue because I'm not a big fan of eating things dipped in melted chocolate (although I do like it on top of ice cream), but I remember thinking that the cake was too dry.

It was disappointing to have underwhelming food at a restaurant that I had heard good things about. Most of you know what I'm like; It's not as though my standards are unattainably high.


Sacred Chow
227 Sullivan St
New York, NY 10012

Candle Cafe
1307 3rd Ave
New York, NY 10021

105 1st Ave
New York, NY 10003


LySiNe / September 7, 2008 5:08 AM

I've found the deli section at whole foods to be a great place to eat. They make a mean vegetarian pizza. I can't remember if its vegan friendly or not too. It makes me happy...

olivia / September 7, 2008 7:34 AM

oh no! most vegetarian places suck. but im sad you didnt like counter. their drinks are their strong point, i think. and yeah, the westville east market special of four plates definitely trumps all other restaurant's vegetable offerings!

Steph / September 7, 2008 11:48 AM

I agree with you on the whole "my favorite vegetarian restaurants are of the Asian variety" school. I was so upset when 18 Ahran's on Lafayette and Grand was shut down -- it was that little place that was run by Buddhist nuns that also had a temple in the rear... AWESOME. They were so sweet! Anywho, count me as one of those veg-heads who still think you rule. Happy belated birthday! :)

- S

janet / September 7, 2008 12:30 PM

I haven't eaten at that many veg/vegan only places but it IS weird that you can find other veggie things at regular places that taste better, even without the liberal use of pork fat or whatever. It's so strange.

Also interesting this usage of soba! and piling on random asiany ingredients.

On a somewhat related note, can anyone explain tofu in salad? I don't get it.

Marsha Calhoun / September 7, 2008 1:22 PM

I have had similar experiences, and have learned a useful rule: Go for the restaurant that serves excellent food, some of which happens to be vegan or vegetarian, rather than the restaurant whose main appeal/claim to fame is that it is vegan or vegetarian. The cook needs to be someone who puts taste first, ahead of philosophy or dietary restriction.

grace / September 7, 2008 3:15 PM

yeah.. unfortuantly alot of veg. places serve food that lack "umami" taste, which is rich in meats.

i cook vegetarian often but i'm actually an omnivoer. being chinese i'm kinda more famliar with chinses veg. cooking. in chinese veg cooking you can use alot of "soy fermented " products to coex out umami.

like this crispy bean sauce
(they use it in a fish dish here but the sauce itself is vegetarian)

or like the more typical black bean paste or all kinds of bean paste and stuff you can find at local asian market. alot of them are vegetarian.

also in chinese veg restaurants they use alot of tofus that's "pre-fried" and then stired-fried w/ other veggies.. the grease soemtimes does somewhat make up for the lack of umami.

and seeweed products are used in alot of veg. dishes. and dried seaweeds products(ie. dry seakelp is high in umami) In japanese cuisine they used dried seakelp often as soup base. which makes a total veg. soup base that contains umami. incidentally miso is also vegetarian. another soy product.

grace / September 7, 2008 3:25 PM

also in chinese veg restaurnats they use alot of mushrooms. esp. dried shitake mushrooms has a strong umami taste.. i think italian food also uses mushrooms alot . last time i was in italy we went to a mushroom restaurant..(not that kind, lol, haha, just the food type. they serve an entire course w/ different mushrooms, yum!)

any way dried shitake mushrooms, eps the wild ones,has super tasty umami taste you dont' even need any meat.. i find this alto in chinese veg. restaraurnts.

roboppy / September 7, 2008 5:00 PM

Lysine: The WF deli section isn't bad. I haven't tried it very often though...WF tends to be super crowded in NYC (when everyone else wants to eat at least, haha).

Olivia: Ahhh WESTVILLE IS SO TASTY. I haven't been back since we ate there! :[

Laryssa: Oo, thanks for sharing your blog post! It's too bad that I'm not alone on my thoughts. Maybe alcohol is the way to go.. :P (We also shared a pot of tea at my dinner. The tea was fine.)

Steph: I never got to try 18 Ahran's, but I heard of it! Dohhh. :( Are there any other places like it that you'd recommend?

Janet: Sometimes getting veggie things ay non-vegetarian restaurants is a good way to go. Maybe cos they're not just catering to vegetarians? Not that "catering to vegetarians" means something shouldn't taste good...

Tofu in a salad..I don't see it much. But I suppose it'd be like when salads have meat in them; it's some kind of protein source?

Marsha: Yeah, that's true. If only Momofuku made vegan things (I assume the pickles are at least vegan..oh..except for the kimchi, crap); they would probably taste like AWESOME.

Grace: Mm beany sauces! And mushrooms! And seaweed! AND GREASE! It's delicious, you're right. As for Italian food, a simple pasta with marinara sauce should be vegan, without any cheese. And there are lots of tasty vegetarian things if cheese is allowed.

robbylyn / September 7, 2008 7:18 PM

Hilarious! I think the bullet points are a nice touch on the bewilderment. Chinese vegetarian food's better because they make the food look like what it's supposed to be. It's not barbequed pork, but let's pretend it is...

Laura / September 8, 2008 8:28 AM

I agree about the Asian vegetarian food, it's the best. Especially Indian food--they really know their stuff, and it isn't a bunch of veggie versions of meat dishes. Italian is a close second for vegetarians, IMO.

Ulla / September 8, 2008 1:35 PM

great blog post. i have to agree some of the BEST home cooks i know are vegetarian. there food is just so amazing but when you eat out it looses some of that love.

roboppy / September 9, 2008 12:53 AM

robbylyn: I love bullet points so I don't have to write real paragraphs!

Jason: Oo, that sounds good! Thanks for the rec.

Laura: Mm yes, I like Indian food because it's not like "MOCK CHICKEN PORK BALL" or something. Then again, I would probably like a mock chicken pork ball.

Ulla: Everything Tristan cooks is FULL OF LOOOVE! :D

Ully / September 9, 2008 8:06 AM

Hey Robyn! I find it quite strange that tempeh (or simply tempe in Bahasa Indonesia) is served with dressing and salad. In Indonesia, the most basic way to cook tempe is by marinating it with chopped garlic, a pinch of salt and a bit of water then deep fried it and serve it with plain rice and sambal. It's very tasty and rich in garlic flavor. Next time when you come to Indonesia, I'll take you to eat it like an Indonesian :)

Julie / September 9, 2008 11:32 AM

Wow, heartbreaking! I'm glad you usually get to blog about yummier food. The fallen sundae at a "haute cuisine" place just looks like fail, and the food from Sacred Chow looked like it had such potential, so it's a bummer that it was plain. The root pancake looks like a sweet potato and vegetarian chorizo hash that I made, and I thought that was tasty. Out here, the best vegetarian/vegan food also comes out of Asian restaurants, and off the top of my head, I can think of only one exception: Pita Jungle.

olia / September 9, 2008 12:15 PM

have you been to Red Bamboo? they do a nice mix of proper vegetarian/vegan (veggie based dishes with asian inclinations etc.) and also some really junky but oooomg delicious foods of the mock variety (soul chicken, etc.)
oh and soy milkshakes are really really good!

Christina / September 9, 2008 8:22 PM

I want limonade.

I'm also wary about eating at a vegetarian restaurant. I wonder if I could make the same thing for less, and if it'll really be worth it over, say, STEAK!

roboppy / September 10, 2008 12:54 AM

Chuck: Thanks for the rec! It sounds (and looks) really good from your review...I waaaant.

Ully: It's a shame that more people here AREN'T marinating tempeh with garlic and salt and deep-frying it. What the hell. Not that people can't do whatever they want with it, but that sounds awesome.

Julie: AHhh yes, delicious pitas..filled with delicious HUMMUS? And FALAFEL? :D I forgot to add that to my "delicious vegetarian" list.

Olia: I've heard that Red Bamboo is good, but haven't tried it yet! Soy milkshake sounds promising..

Christina: I think steak would probably win. ;)

Danny: HAHA, pork goes well on everything! That's the way it is.

Alison / September 10, 2008 2:59 PM

Robyn... hi!

Finally came around by again and saw the Counter post. I think Charles was right, we should have stuck to the desserts. On my part, after a long day of exercise, wanted something savory, and the East Side Burger looked like it would've been it. But instead of having those lovely veggie-burger touches (like spicy edamame bits or different textures of mushrooms) it just tried to be a normal grilled-tasting-burger. If I had to go back, I would definitely still get the apples and dark chocolate fondue though.

As a last meal with Charles, had the most lovely dessert at Chinatown Brasserie. They offered so manny different flavors of sorbet, including mango, lychee, coconut and kiwi, just bursting with flavor! I went a bit non-vegan and had a scoop of chocolate gelato on the side with mine, but Charles stuck to his vegan ways and was completely happy for the rest of the night trying all the different types of sorbet. I think the coconut sorbet / chocolate gelato combination was my favorite.

Kate / September 10, 2008 7:56 PM

I eat vegetarian/vegan one or two days a week, and if you can ever find vegan ravioli, I recommend it. I have found that restaurants that serve meat, but also serve vegetarian options, have better vegetarian options than the vegetarian restaurants. I don't know's just yummier!

roboppy / September 11, 2008 12:39 AM

Alison: Ooo, I've never been to Chinatown Brasserie but I heard good things about it! Doh. Although sorbet sounds good, I'd love dim sum.

Kate: I agree that some non-vegetarian restaurants serve better vegetarian dishes than the vegetarian restaurants. But then there isn't as much to choose from.... :\

Diana / September 12, 2008 2:15 AM

You should come to China and try out the Buddhist vegetarian restaurants. They make mock pork belly so good you would swear it was the real thing. :)

I'm also usually underwhelmed by vegetarian restaurants. I used to live in the East Village and walked by Counter every day...never went it since it seemed to be all hype and overpriced. The one place I did love in New York was Angelica Kitchen. Not sure if it's still around...

SuperChomp / September 12, 2008 9:50 AM

It's always best to be honest. It's not your fault if you're underwhelmed by the food 0_o I guess if a vegan restaurant really impressed you, it must be a strong recommendation for vegan, so it's all for the best. Yes. /babble

I don't really get it when veggie foods try to imitate omnifoods, it seems unnecessary to me. Although there is a "fake abalone" mushroom that is awesome in its own right. I love all food groups too much to exclude anything though.

J / September 12, 2008 12:44 PM

this is a great post! i'm an aspiring vegetarian (it probably won't happen) - but I also like Chinese vegetarian food. I suggest Home on 8th (near MSG/Penn Station) - they offer both regular & vegetarian menus. I mostly enjoy their vegetarian kung pao.

roboppy / September 13, 2008 2:48 AM

Nina: Oo, I've heard of that place! Shall look into it..

Diana: I'd love to try the Buddhist vegetarian restaurants...and whatever meat-filled restaurants there are. :D

I've been to Angelica Kitchen once like..6 years ago (it's still around, hehe). And I remember it was just okay. Not that I ordered much. Never felt like going back, but maybe I should try it again?

SuperChomp: Ooo fake abalone mushrooms? ..Wait, I wanna try those! I like shrooms. I like abalone. And I like all food groups, yesm.

J: Oo, I went to Home once, actually (it's reaaally close to my office. For some eggplant dish. Unfortunately it wasn't very good, but their menu is big so I suppose they excel in other areas. :) The portion was also huuuge, like two meals. Mmmm.

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