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Changing Course

The simple life: If you gotta go vegetarian, go to WaterCourse.
Mark Manger

My first visit to WaterCourse Foods was on a bet. It was a bet with myself -- a wager between my better and worse natures that revolved around my good self's belief that every restaurant, no matter its kink, offers something tasty to those willing to really look, and my bad self's contention that the very notion of vegetarianism trumped any such happy optimism. The stakes were a big plate of barbecue, loser buys. Which was perfect, because no matter which half of me won, I would be getting barbecue.

Stepping inside WaterCourse, which has occupied its storefront space in the middle of a highly eclectic block of 13th Avenue since 1998, I quickly pegged it as the better version of the two kinds of vegetarian/vegan/macrobiotic restaurants that seem to exist outside the realm of the ethno-specific Indian and Middle Eastern veggie joints. Not one of those sleek, polished and highly aerodynamic boîtes -- rare outside of Manhattan and California -- that cater to sleek, polished and wealthy health nuts who stop in between yoga classes for a shot of wheat-grass juice and a $34 plate of mangled tofu in celery sauce, but rather the rough-around-the-edges Bohemian version with the mismatched silverware and secondhand tables. In these places, the art on the walls is generally pleasingly abstract (though it occasionally constitutes disturbing collections of feminist vaginal self-portraiture), the music tolerable as long as the counterman isn't on some kind of jam-band kick, and the crowd an exercise in demographic free association: hippies and yuppies and neighbors and hemp-sandaled digestive activists with the sickly pallor of those who haven't even smelled a steak in years, let alone eaten one, all jammed together in lovely John-and-Yoko tranquility. You can always tell when you've found one of the latter sort of vegetarian restaurants, because right inside the door, there will be some kind of community message board offering holistic car repair, chakra realignment, cheap massages and cash rewards for the return of lost pets. As Alan Richman -- a fellow food writer and unabashed carnivore like me -- once wisely observed, vegetarians seem to lose more than their share of cats. I think this is because even cats can't stand being around most vegetarians for too long.

On my first visit to WaterCourse, I had a cup of coffee, a glass of apple juice and a tempeh burger because the menu, rather ostentatiously, claimed it was the "best damn veggie burger anywhere." Calling anything the "best veggie burger" is a lot like saying you have the "best damn fish sandwich with no fish in it" or "the best damn snail-less escargot," but that aside, I got a very good meatless patty of vegetable matter, served with grilled onions and sautéed mushrooms on a solid grilled bun. It wasn't a burger, by any stretch of the imagination, but it was tasty, cooked to what I can only assume was a perfect mid-rare for fermented soybean paste -- which is to say, brown.

My better half won that bet. I, a dedicated meat-eater with an inordinate fear of tofu and patchouli perfume, had gone into a vegetarian restaurant -- stormed the gates of the broccoli temple, as it were -- and right off the bat, found something to my liking. I hadn't been converted, but I had been well-fed, and in celebration, the devil on my shoulder bought the barbecue. That was two years ago.

My second, third, fifth and all subsequent visits to WaterCourse have been entirely voluntary. I simply like this spot, which chef/owner Dan Landes (who's not a vegetarian) started because he thought Denver needed a good vegetarian restaurant, and if there was going to be one, it might as well be his. I sometimes go just for coffee at the bar because I like the neighborhood, because sitting there makes me feel like an anthropologist on Venus cataloguing the habits of strange, alien creatures who -- in their dependence on vegetable proteins, legumes and celery used as something other than part of the mirepoix in a good veal-bone stock -- are barely recognizable as coming from my own meat-centric universe. Also, I like to keep an eye on the kind of people who frequent WaterCourse, because I've never shaken the nagging suspicion that they're plotting something when I'm not looking. Like replacing all the butter in the world with non-hydrogenated soy margarine -- which is what the kitchen at WaterCourse actually uses, to sometimes frighteningly good effect, as in a dinner special of roasted butternut squash vegan alfredo with zucchini and tomatoes.

I go when I'm suffering from occasional bouts of critical ague -- what the French call a crise de foie, literally translated as "liver trouble," a peculiarly Froggish malady that strikes those who've overindulged in real butter, snails and beaujolais too many nights running. WaterCourse is the perfect cure for this, because I can eat an entire meal here and still feel as though I haven't ingested any actual food.

And sometimes I just go for pancakes. Vegetarian restaurants -- and now I'm talking about the Bohemian joints again, because the chrome-and-lacquer addresses would never deign to serve anything so pedestrian as breakfast -- seem to do pancakes unerringly well, and WaterCourse is no exception. Maybe that's because pancakes are one of the few foods on earth not improved by a demiglace or the inclusion of pork.

Whatever the explanation, WaterCourse makes a mean stack of flapjacks -- heavy and chewy and as serious as anything done in the diners and lumber camps where pancakes are not just a staple, but an entire food group. Go whole hog, so to speak, and order the special buckwheat pancakes topped with crunchy granola, sliced bananas and seasonal berries, and you can almost understand how a vegetarian can survive on his diet of twigs and berries without going mad, driving out to a stockyard and just taking a bite out of a cow.

WaterCourse has other worthy breakfast offerings. There's Amsterdam hash, which doesn't include what you think it might by the name, but instead consists of a big plate of grilled vegetables and homefries with eggs on top (tofu for the vegans) and "gravy" that tastes almost, but not completely, unlike anything resembling gravy. The breakfast burrito is passable when ordered without the tempeh chorizo -- a weighty mix of potatoes, almost buttery refried beans and scrambled, cage-free, vegetarian-fed, organic, hormone and antibiotic-free eggs splashed with green chile and cheese. And the N.Y.C. Scramble, with sundried tomatoes, spinach, roasted garlic, basil and brie, would be right at home on the finest breakfast menu.

Lunch and dinner can be more problematic. Beyond the occasional glitch in the apolitical mechanics of cooking (watery tomatoes causing the whole-wheat tortillas to go limp, an overpoweringly green and grassy pesto), I have concerns about the way certain entrees are conceptualized and executed. In its most basic applications, vegetarian cookery has always struck me as a cuisine of subtraction, in much the same way that Catholicism is a lifestyle of deprivation. Both exist, on a certain level, as a system of denial in expectation of future benefits. When I was a young boy, I was expected to sit quietly in church every Sunday for a couple of hours while a man in a funny hat explained to me all the things I was not allowed to do. No cursing, no coveting, no false idolatry -- all the usual stuff. He would tell stories about people who lived thousands of years ago who broke these rules and suffered for it, then more stories about other people who obeyed all the rules and, as a prize, got wings when they died and learned to play the harp. I didn't care much about the harp lessons, but the wings sounded pretty cool.

At a vegetarian restaurant, the process works much the same way. You sit down, are given a menu and told all the things you should not eat. There are Philly cheesesteaks at WaterCourse made with grilled seitan -- wheat gluten masquerading as meat -- rather than Steak-Ums because Steak-Ums are evil; tacos made with tempeh in place of barbacoa; tofu BBQ. And these all taste perfectly fine, even if they taste nothing like the food they're supposed to be mimicking. (Actually, I don't know what the seitan cheesesteak tastes like, since I've never been able to bring myself to order one -- not just because of the travesty of veggie-ing up such a classic sandwich, but also because it's served standard with mushrooms and bell peppers, which would be wrong even if the cheesesteak had meat in it). Still, having been raised in a mishmash of Catholic, Protestant and Lutheran traditions, I have an overdeveloped sense of guilt and punishment that causes me to believe if you're going to do something ridiculous like become a vegan, you should have to suffer for it by not getting to eat cheesesteaks. Even fake cheesesteaks. Even fake cheesesteaks without any cheese on them.

Besides, there are plenty of naturally occurring foods in the gustatory cosmos for vegetarians to eat without resorting to this nonsensical fakery. I don't go around demanding that my vegetables all come wrapped in steak, so why do vegetarians have to get their tofu done in a mockery of jerk chicken? Even that wonderful alfredo wasn't actually an alfredo by even the most forgiving of definitions, except that it looked kinda like an alfredo -- which is to say, white.

So on a recent visit to WaterCourse, I decided to test some of the purely vegetarian fare that doesn't pretend to be carnivorous. I sat down in the crowded dining room and ordered the Sid -- a sandwich, served on grilled peasant bread and made up of Kalamata olive tapenade, fresh tomatoes, capers and some really good goat-milk feta, that came with a wreck of a vegetable soup (an oily, broken, lukewarm mess of a soup whose failures had nothing to do with it being vegetarian and everything to do with a poorly constructed broth). Still, the Sid was the best-smelling sandwich I've ever had set in front of me -- all high, bittersweet and acidic, like the wonderful bouquet of an aged balsamic vinegar. Tragically, though, just one bite was like being hit in the mouth with an olive bar. The combination of astringents -- capers and tapenade, plus tomatoes, with only the most tenuous grounding offered by the feta -- was overwhelming, barely contained by the thick bread, flavorful in a commendable way that most vegetarian cuisine is not, but simply too harsh. Once I got over the shock of that bite, all I could think about was how some grilled chicken would make the sandwich perfect. It would complement the feta, balance the olives and capers, really bring the whole thing together. And once I thought that, I knew I had to get some chicken. And I knew where I could get it.

Right around the corner from WaterCourse, there's a Quizno's franchise. So the next day I got myself a Ziploc plastic bag, ordered a sub (the chicken carbonara, in case you're curious, with no sauce, hold the vegetables), pulled the chicken off, put it in the baggie, and then -- like a coke mule walking through customs -- tried to act cool as I returned to WaterCourse, waited for a seat, then ordered the Sid again. I was a little worried that the smell of the chicken would drive the protein-starved crowds into a frenzy of George Romero-esque zombie madness, but that didn't happen. For a vegetarian kitchen, WaterCourse puts out some pretty good smells all by itself, so no one noticed when I opened the bag.

No one noticed when I started laying down the chicken. And no one noticed when I took a big bite and started laughing. The chicken had done the trick, wedding all the combative flavors of the sandwich. Adding to my enjoyment, I felt like I'd gotten away with something -- like bringing porn to church or sneaking a pork chop into a seder.

There aren't a lot of dishes at WaterCourse in need of such sneaky, underhanded improvement, but it did prove to me that there are just some things that demand a carnivore's touch.

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