Not all vegetarians are happy to kiss meat goodbye.
"Sometimes I miss meat," says Dan Landes, owner of Denver's latest vegetarian eatery, Watercourse Foods. "I love good food, and I love for it to have flavor. So even though I've been a vegetarian for the last four years, I can say that I've had days when I really craved some meat. It's really hard to get good vegetarian food, because it's not always easy to understand how natural flavors work. It's not like you can just throw in some fat to bring it all home, like with a sauce. There's no fat to cover up bad produce or ingredients in vegetarian cooking, either."
Landes knows all about fat. A native Denverite, he started out working in greasy spoons across the city before moving to New York to attend the Natural Gourmet Cooking School, sort of the Culinary Institute of America for the herbivore set. "I learned so much there," Landes says. "I went there and came back with the intention of opening my own vegetarian place." Which he did this past January, calling it Watercourse because "it gives an image of flowing, of naturalness. Our motto is, 'Eat the path of least resistance.'"
After several visits there--a few on my own dime--I can attest to the fact that Watercourse's many charms are hard to resist. First there's the easygoing attitude of the friendly, helpful staff. Then there's the casual setup, whereby customers order their food at the front counter and then head to a table holding a card whose number tells a server where to put the food. (This arrangement works very well except at peak dining times, when Watercourse gets so hectic that I once almost left without paying; I only caught the gaffe because I always double-check that I have a receipt.) There's the 10 percent discount at all times for diners who bike to the restaurant. And there's the plethora of reading materials that make solo diners feel very welcome.
And then, of course, there's the food, a collection of breakfast and lunch favorites. Landes says all of the dishes are made entirely from scratch, and I believe him. They contain so much flavor and show so much flair that they render meat moot.
I didn't even miss the bacon that wasn't in my blue-plate special ($2.50), so hefty were the portions of scrambled eggs (they say two, I say bull), herb-crusty home fries and thick-sliced wheat toast. The eggs were the real marvel, a soft scramble with especially tasty parts that had been grilled light brown; the chunky potatoes were an ideal mix of crisp edges and yielding centers. Even without meat, the price was amazingly small for the huge amount of food--too much to finish, although I desperately wanted to.
How Landes made the gravy on the biscuits ($4.50) so delicious is a secret between him and his vegetable stock. Lots of pepper helped, but there was an underlying plump flavor that could only have come from some intense reduction of the base and a well-made roux. The biscuits were of the optimal consistency to pair with this concoction; their light, fluffy texture--the description is cliched, I know, but in this case it's absolutely accurate--would have turned to glue in a meaty minute when soaked with a different kind of gravy.
Another fine breakfast item was the Pepe ($5.50), one of Watercourse's several scramble offerings featuring a variety of ingredients. The Pepe included roasted green chiles, tomatoes, caramelized onions--an ingredient Landes uses often, with excellent results--and smoked gouda, all of which gave the eggs a chile-relleno-like quality that was enhanced by a side of lardless, very clean-tasting refried beans and an intensely smoky chipotle red chile. Watercourse makes several other mean, meat-free Mexican items, including the massive Juan wrap ($5.95), a whole-wheat tortilla packed to the edges with grilled mushrooms and onions, sweet potatoes, smoked gouda and a stirring cilantro-pistachio pesto. The grilling brought out the mushrooms while the potatoes added sweetness, and the pesto's nutty punch pulled it all together. Watercourse's other wrap, the Jimmy ($5.95), owes its inspiration to Greece. A moist roasted-red-pepper hummus cemented a tart mixture of red leaf lettuce, kalamatas, red onions, tomatoes, cucumbers and feta into a bundle with lots of crunch--and lots to munch.
Nothing else we ate at Watercourse, however, was as substantial as the buckwheat pancakes ($2.75 for a short stack). I'd hate to see the fat stack, because the short one consisted of two damp, hot 'cakes that were each half an inch thick and hung over the side of the plate. We poured on the syrup and made it about halfway through, then took the rest home. The pancakes had been so well-mixed--meaning they weren't too dry--that they held up through a nuking the next morning and still tasted fantastic.
Watercourse doesn't skimp on the sandwiches and their sides, either. The filling eggplant parmesan ($5.95), a well-melded pile of breaded, fried eggplant drenched with a sweet marinara and topped with melted mozzarella (it could have used a tad more cheese), came with half a bag of salty corn tortilla chips (they could have used a blob of salsa or something) and raisin-dotted couscous. The same sides accompanied the vegetarian Reuben ($6.25), in which a grilled portabello subbed for corned beef on the marbled rye and was topped with plenty of freshly made sauerkraut, Swiss and a tangy sauce.
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Even the macro plate ($5.75), Landes's nod to the vegan crowd, was something special, thanks to the teriyaki-soaked tofu and the seaweed and steamed greens atop the brown rice. "I love good cheese, so sometimes it's hard for me to make dishes without it," says Landes. "I guess I'll never be able to be vegan. But we knew we needed to have at least one of those." Watercourse's egg dishes can also be done with tofu or egg substitute, and anything can be made cheese-free. But without the gorgonzola, the spinach salad ($5.75) just wouldn't be the same. In addition to the pungent cheese, the fresh, fresh spinach was studded with honey-roasted walnuts and sliced green apples, then doused with a well-balanced raspberry vinaigrette.
So far, so good. Still, my favorite dish at Watercourse turned out to be the tempeh burger ($5.95). Most vegetarian restaurants make a mess of their veggie burgers--either they start with lentils and turn them into a dry paste, or they use a wheat-based product and fail to pump it up with wet stuff. But Watercourse relies on tempeh, the hundreds-of-years-old fermented, cultured soybean product that has an inherent nuttiness and sweetness, which the kitchen improved upon by adding caramelized onions and a subtle barbecue sauce. This wasn't just a burger substitute--it was a great burger in its own right. And it didn't leave me with that too-full feeling that often comes from consuming a meat patty.
Now, I'm not saying that I'm ready to kiss off meat entirely. But at Watercourse, I'm willing to go with the flow.
Watercourse Foods, 206 East Thirteenth Avenue, 832-7313. Hours: 6:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday; 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.