Second Helpings

Tempeh, Tempeh

WaterCourse Foods serves great vegetarian food. But it serves that food very, very slowly.

Chef/owner Dan Landes opened his flesh-free restaurant almost three years ago, and it was a fast hit with vegans, carnivores, macro heads and lackadaisical chicken-and-fish-eating vegetarians alike ("Go With the Flow," May 21, 1998). To please his many fans, Landes recently added dinner to the WaterCourse lineup, and he made more changes to go along with the expanded hours. Instead of placing your order at the front counter, for example, the service is sit-down; there's also a comfy counter where you can eat, in front of the popular coffee bar. Now Landes's next project should be fixing his eatery's awful service.

The staffers are a cheerful lot who try hard, shrug their shoulders, smile, apologize and apologize again for the slow progress of a WaterCourse meal. At least the urban ambience, with its mix-and-match garage-sale furniture and handwritten notes to employees all over the place, is conducive to kicking back and reading, say, War and Peace. But a recent lunch there took a good half-hour longer than it had any right to take, and I had to run out twice to feed the meter. (At least something was eating.)

During the week, folks in line for a takeout latte -- made with Daz-Bog beans and therefore fabulous -- compete for attention with folks waiting at the tables to get a full breakfast; the noon hour is just as jammed. On Sundays, WaterCourse is so packed that the kitchen struggles with timing, and sometimes eight tables get their food all at once -- those seated just minutes before, and others who have been waiting upwards of 45 minutes after ordering.

Your best bet for actually getting some food in a timely manner is dinner, when WaterCourse makes the best tempeh scallopini (if perhaps the only tempeh scallopini) in town. Landes, a graduate of New York's Natural Gourmet Cookery School, takes tempeh, a nutty-flavored soybean cake, and dredges it in flour before frying it in gravy and then serving it up alongside steamed spinach and his chunky, creamy-textured mashed potatoes. The key to this dish is the musky mushroom gravy, flavored with fresh herbs (most notably rosemary) and coming as close to tasting like beef as it's possible to get without actually involving a cow.

Landes has a real flair for tempeh, as further evidenced by the ever-popular tempeh burger, a past Best of Denver award winner. The soybean cake comes topped with buttery, grill-caramelized onions, sautéed mushrooms and a thick, sweet barbecue sauce, all packed onto a spongy roll. The side of couscous, a rarity in this town, makes the meal, with raisins providing a welcome sweetness in addition to something to gnaw on. Red-sauce fans can get their fix with tempeh Bolognese, which features a thick, chunky sauce made from fresh, cooked-down tomatoes poured over angel-hair pasta and a thick slab of cheese-encased eggplant parmesan.

For macro diets, there's a plate of crisp-edged tofu smothered in an orange-scented ginger sauce and served over well-steamed brown rice, with a side of salty seaweed and tart pickled cabbage that complements the whole grains.

Still, as good as WaterCourse's new vegetarian dinner entrees are -- and as badly needed as they are in this meat-mad town -- they're not quite as amazing as the breakfast and lunch dishes. Although you can request that any of the a.m. dishes except pancakes be made vegan, you'll be missing out on a lot of flavor. The Barcelona scramble, for instance, boasts big blobs of Gorgonzola, along with roasted green chiles, tomatoes and roasted garlic all smashed into the eggs. The cheese is feta in the Capri, which also scrambles its eggs with a mix of kalamatas, tomatoes, zucchini, carrots and fresh basil. Landes fries up some killer French toast, too, made from thick, nutmeggy slices of banana bread and then topped with honey-roasted walnuts. When the biscuits and gravy are made right -- once there was so much rosemary in the gravy it was just shy of inedible -- they're a marvel: fat, nubby biscuits blanketed by delicious, mushroomy goo. Another marvel is Landes's grilled portabello Reuben, a fun combination of sauerkraut, melted Swiss and creamy, tangy sauce.

If you have time to smell the tofu, WaterCourse is the way to go.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner