Portabella sandwich $7
Mock chicken salad $8
Veggie burger $7
Hummus plate $5.50
This being the season of romance, it's worth remembering the surest route to the heart: through the stomach. It's an adage that vegetarian advocates would do well to keep in mind. While there's a strong intellectual case to be made that a fleshless diet is better for the body and the planet — and an even stronger emotional argument that it's inhumane to eat Bambi, Thumper and Wilbur — neither line of reasoning appeals to the taste buds. Let's face it: Critter-loving rhetoric and scientific evidence of herbivorous evolution are peachy, but they don't mean a thing if the food ain't got that zing. Ask me to choose between conscience-nourishing tofu and bad-boy bacon, and Babe the Pig goes down every time. Vegan or carnivore, nobody salivates over a heaping plate of dogma.
Locally speaking, there has yet to be a wholly convincing culinary case made for whole-hog meatlessness. But The Wild Cow vegetarian restaurant in East Nashville puts the best hoof forward that we've seen in a while. There's a lot to like about John Cochran and Melanie Bhagat Cochran's cleanly rustic room with stone cladding and walls coated in a rich kale green. Located in the Walden building, around the corner from Silly Goose and across the street from Rosepepper Cantina, Wild Cow brings new nutritional dimension to the critical dining mass on the burgeoning strip of Eastland Avenue. On our trips, the feeling in the room was a genuine gratitude for a meatless option.
We cherry-picked a few surprisingly good items from the menu, which offers gluten-free breads and vegan cheeses in addition to traditional wheat bread and dairy cheese. Despite its foreboding name, Texas Trainwreck Chili with black beans and textured vegetable protein (defatted soy flour also known as TVP) was the best thing we ordered. The rich red hue and ground-beef texture belied the meatlessness, and a complex layering of spices delivered a subtle sting of heat balanced by a cool dollop of "sour cream" made with vegan mayonnaise, garlic and lime.
A platter of tangy cucumber-dill hummus served with sliced cucumbers, carrots and celery sticks made a straightforward opening, though the pink tomatoes were so insipid we couldn't see the point of serving them, and we can only hope that the dried dill flecks in the hummus will be replaced by fresh herbs once the growing season rolls around. This time of year, the sesame-tinged side salad of cucumbers, kale and scallions made a fresher and more inventive impression.
While kale lasagna with semolina pasta looked more like a scramble than a traditional layered casserole, the generous sauté of tofu, cauliflower, broccoli, squash, zucchini, caramelized onions and green peppers made a comforting warm meal and was available with a choice of vegan or dairy cheese.
Kitchen manager Winston Harrison & Co. turned out several dishes that turned our heads with elegant, colorful presentations that were more consistent with contemporary-cuisine restaurants than with bohemian granola bars. A brace of tempeh-pinto bean cakes arrived nestled on a bed of rice tinted with red chili paste and topped with a cool cloud of vegan sour cream, a sprig of cilantro and a lime wedge. Drizzled with a thick tomatillo sauce, the entrée resembled a pretty pair of crab cakes. (Unfortunately, the comparison did not extend to the texture and flavor profile.)
The portabella sandwich scored high marks, with grilled strips of plump mushroom served with tahini dressing, roasted red peppers, sprouts and greens on a wheat bun from local Charpier's bakery. As far as veggie burgers go, Wild Cow's formula of TVP, brown rice and black beans flavored with cumin and liquid smoke had a toothsome, nutty texture that held up in the bun rather than mashing out the sides. Our primary complaint with the burger was that the bun was charred pitch black, as was the case with several of our sandwiches.
The veg-heads at our table were generally pleased with their meals, and if we were starved for gluten-free or vegan fare, Wild Cow would likely be a godsend. But there were no conversions among the carnivores in our group. In fact, if anything, all that spongy TVP, tofu, fermented soybean cake, seasoned wheat gluten, and plastic-flavored vegan cheese sauce made us yearn for the rich, rounded flavors that we love in animal products — from the tongue-coating candied fat of sugar-cured bacon to the tangy elasticity of molten cheddar.
Reading down the menu, with its litany of references to meat and cheese — from Mock Chicken Salad with seitan to the Wild Reuben with tempeh or tofu — we got the feeling that maybe someone else at Wild Cow was thinking about the good old days of eating animals. We halfway suspected that if we looked behind the counter we'd see a server curled in the fetal position, wearing a protein patch, stroking a ham and counting the days she'd been "clean."
Even Wild Cow's name implies the inconvenient absence of meat, as in, "That cow we were planning to eat went wild and we can't catch it, so damn it all, we're going to eat this textured vegetable protein." OK, maybe that's just an omnivore's beef-starved interpretation. But it seems like Wild Cow might be hiding its light under a bushel by pushing items such as vegan Reubens and cheesesteaks. If the goal is to convert a larger audience to the unique pleasures of veggie dining, why serve up odd facsimiles of meat-lover staples that can only disappoint curious carnivores? A better strategy might be to showcase the fresh and flavorful versatility of vegetables and grains, which brings to mind another good old adage: If you've got it, flaunt it. Vegetarians — and the Wild Cow crew in particular — would do well to remember that.
Wild Cow is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day except Tuesday.
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