ITHACA, N.Y. — In summer, like pilgrims drawn to a shrine, people from all over the world beat a path to the celebrated Moosewood Restaurant. "We are quite humbled by so many international visitors," says Wynnie Stein from behind the cash register on a recent night.
In the small nearby kitchen, cooks Neil Minnis and Sarah Robbins are preparing the evening's four dinner selections. And in the patio and dining room, there is a smattering of languages.
That the vegetarian Moosewood is such a global success is a bit of a wonder. Ms. Stein, and 18 other co-owners of Moosewood, are part of a collective that has quietly guided the philosophy and fortunes of the enterprise since 1973. Too many cooks have not spoiled the broth here.
In an age of superstar chefs and stylish but self-conscious restaurants with $15 appetizers, Moosewood is the opposite. Low key and low priced, the menu is harnessed to taste, quality, and meatless nutrition. As for the 19 owners, they thrive on job rotation as a means of keeping up morale and learning new skills. To them, and their 40 employees, Moosewood is ultimately a "family."
Together they have created a kind of friendly vegetarian juggernaut. All six Moosewood cookbooks have been bestsellers; two have earned coveted James Beard Awards. Moosewood owners are invited to speak everywhere, and have been featured on just about every major TV show around.
"People come to us from everywhere, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, all over Asia," says Ms. Stein. " We are just doing what we love, and to have this kind of acceptance is great."
When Moosewood first opened its doors, none of the collective members had any formal culinary training. "Although we all loved good food," says Stein, "there weren't master vegetarian cooks to learn from then. Now many [culinary schools] call us and ask that we do classes for them."
At the heart of their vegetarian menu is a willingness to explore different ethnic cuisine and "fusion" cuisine and offer balance in meals. "We offer a range, from indulgent to very low fat," says Stein, "because sometimes people are going out to dinner to celebrate. They may never cook at home with rich cheeses, but they will eat that in a restaurant."
Stein maintains that for years Americans didn't eat the way the rest of the world ate. "Americans were locked into that center-of-the-plate kind of meal with two sides dishes," she says. "The rest of the world has courses throughout a meal that are smaller and more satisfying."
Which is not to say that Moosewood doesn't offer "center of the plate" dinners.
"For instance, we might include a rich center of the plate lasagna," says Stein. "Because we are a restaurant, we have to be open and not preachy. That's been part of our success. We never say there is one way to do this and we'll tell you the right way."
On a recent week night I tried Menestra De Verura. The meal was a classic Spanish stew that included potatoes, carrots, artichokes, and tomatoes, and topped with chopped eggs and green olives. And a dash of paprika. It came with a baguette and salad, all for $10. For dessert, I smiled all the way through a tasty rice pudding and coveted the Albanian Walnut Cake served next to me.
"We try to use all local produce," says Stein, "and support as many local businesses as possible. Our bread, ice cream, cheese, and honey are all local."
In summer the restaurant opens a canvas-topped patio on the sidewalk. Inside and down a few steps is Moosewood's most recent addition, a combination juice bar and tiny cafe with one wall devoted to Moosewood cookbooks, T-shirts, mugs, and a few aprons. No hard sell here.
In the main dining room there is lots of blond wood in the walls and chairs, and an atmosphere of easy informality. There is a menu for beverages, and some basic items, but when selecting a dinner choice, all eyes go to the posted blackboard where four dinners and desserts are described in mouth-watering detail.
"Another cookbook is on the way," says Stein. This book will focus on soups and salads, and, like the last four, will include a nutritional analysis of each recipe.
"We've been tempted to open another restaurant," she says, "but it just hasn't been right. It is true that we are getting to the point of thinking about marketing products, or something like that. We are committed to quality food, and we hope when people come here they have enjoyed the food and atmosphere, and have had a unique experience."
CHICK PEA AND ARTICHOKE STEW
This Spanish peasant stew is permeated with the pungency of rosemary and sage.
4 cups water or vegetable stock
2 medium onions, chopped
(about 1-1/2 cups)
2 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
4 medium red or white potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 4 cups)
1 sprig fresh rosemary (1 teaspoon
5 leaves fresh sage, minced
(or 1/2 teaspoon dried)
1/2 cup pured winter squash or sweet potatoes (A 4.5-ounce jar of pured squash baby food works very well in
this recipe and is just the right amount.)
3 cups drained or cooked chick peas
(two 15-ounce cans)
1-1/2 cups drained quartered artichoke hearts (14-ounce can)
Salt and ground black pepper to taste
Lemon wedges (optional)
Grated pecorino or Parmesan cheese (optional)
In a saucepan, bring the water or vegetable stock to a simmer. While the water heats, saut the onions and garlic in the oil for about 8 minutes, until soft. Stir the turmeric and paprika into the onions and saut for a minute. Add the potatoes, rosemary, sage, and the simmering water or stock. Cook for about 12 minutes, until the potatoes are tender. Stir in the pured squash or sweet potatoes, and add the drained chick peas and artichoke hearts. Remove the rosemary sprig, add salt and pepper to taste, and return to a simmer.
Serve with lemon wedges and top with grated pecorino or Parmesan cheese if you wish.
Serves 4 to 6.
- Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home (Simon & Schuster)