Moosewood Restaurant

Ithaca & Finger Lakes, New York


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As a young adult, Moosewood cookbooks were the gold standard for vegetarian cooking, so on a recent trip to Ithaca I knew I had to visit the restaurant that has been a vegetarian institution in my life. The restaurant is much larger than I expected and doesn't have the same handwritten charm as the cookbooks, but it's bright and pleasant.

Moosewood updates its menu twice a day (lunch and dinner) and doesn't like to rush things (so don't expect an updated menu until within the hour of the opening of lunch/dinner service.) You can catch on to the rhythm though, leftovers from last night's dinner may end up in the next day's lunch recycled slightly and vice versa.

On my visit, I had the tofujitas. It was a smaller serving than I expected, but satisfying nonetheless. The sauce and veggies were seasoned well and meant to be appreciated. We also split a It's Summer, salad plate with roasted tomatoes and asparagus on mixed baby greens with a fresh basil vinaigrette. Again, the flavors were so good I wanted to sop up every last drop of the vinaigrette. There were plenty of vegan options to choose from and the staff even offered to hold on the honey in the ginger tea I ordered.

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I grew up in Ithaca, but never went to Moosewood with my family of meat-eaters. As an adult, I was diagnosed with an allergy to casein, and I needed to find more vegan-friendly restaurants to avoid items cooked in butter and such.

Looking at the reviews posted here, I see that a few were frustrated with the vegetarian-rather-than-vegan nature of Moosewood, but I beg to differ. "Bread and butter" is on the menu, but they happily serve Earth Balance (a vegan butter substitute) and use it to cook items on the grill, as well. Want one of the sandwiches or other items with melted cheese? They use daiya for vegan customers.

There might be dishes any given day that cannot be made vegan (a lasagna, for example, that is made before service begins), but I've always had very friendly wait-staff who are glad to show me which items the chefs can modify to make vegan, even if they aren't listed as such on the menu.

And yes, the menu is small, but it gets created after the chefs choose fresh (often local) ingredients and changes every day... no small restaurant could maintain a five-page menu with that system in place. I, for one, love the surprise when I walk into Moosewood and find out what's for dinner that night.

Try the lemon-tahini dressing on your salad... and order dessert!

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I love this place! Every year my husband and I come back for our wedding anniversary. We eat lunch, walk around the plaza for a couple hours and then go back for supper. Every time we've gone we had great service, very little wait for food, and the deserts are delicious. My husband and I are making arrangements for our trip this summer and can't wait to see what's on the menu this time.

I've been working on collecting all the cookbooks so I have have "Moosewood" week when at home.

Image for mark mathew braunstein

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The review written two years earlier than mine is correct. This place is "hopelessly trapped in the 1970's." It's only barely vegetarian insofar as it serves fish, but I've eaten at many dead meat restaurants that offered more vegan options than here. Look at the menu: 1 page of entrees, 1 page of salads and sandwiches and sides, and 5 pages of booze! Among the sides, top of the list is Bread and Butter. The word BUTTER is given as much prominence as the word BREAD! No alternatives to butter, not oil, not avocado, not tahini, only butter. Of the two vegan entrees of the day, neither was no more imaginative nor better tasting than what you probably prepare at home. Unless you intend to get plastered, spare yourself the disappointment and stay home. Or walk around the block from Moosewoods to Greenstar Natural Foods Coop. You don't even need to walk around the block, as both Greenstar and Moosewoods are accessible from and connected to the same indoor mini-mall.

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The 4 items on the menu that I really wanted to try were sold out by mid afternoon. I decided to try a simple salad and a tofu appetizer. They were okay, but not too filling. The best treat was the vegan brownie.

Image for conde.kedar

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Most people think Moosewood is hit-or-miss and I must agree. While I appreciate that it's an institution, and a founding father in the vegetarian restaurant world, it has much room for improvement, if it wants to stay relevant.

For one thing, it's an old-school 1970s "vegetarian" place, meaning it's not actually vegetarian (it serves fish) and isn't overly vegan-friendly by any means. Menu offerings change daily, and what they serve tends to be international in focus; this sounds great, except that stews, dals and dishes of that kind are today so mainstream and ubiquitous, that they hold little appeal, in my opinion.

I started with a guacamole appetizer ($6) which was tasty, but pricey.

I had a Moroccan stew ($15) for my main course, sadly, at it was the only vegan dish available the day I visited. It consisted of potatoes, zucchini and green onions in a vegetable broth, and was served with a chunk of dry corn bread. It also came with a simple house salad covered in a miso-ginger dressing (which was excellent). The stew was pretty lame, though, and way too basic to be worth $15. It lacked any real flavor or zing.

This might have been acceptable vegetarian fare in 1975, but it doesn't pass muster in an age of soy ice cream, Gardein chicken and Daiya cheese.

Why can't Moosewood make its own seitan sandwich? Or a tofu taco or home-made burger? Or, if Moosewood looks down on mockmeats, why not try to replicate some of the smart, gourmet dishes offered by places like Horizons (in Philadelphia) or Millennium (in San Francisco)?

Ultimately, Moosewood can't really compete. It's not vegan-friendly enough to cater to modern vegans and vegetarians accustomed to better, heartier, smarter fare; and it's not sophisticated enough to do battle with really upscale vegetarian and vegan restaurants that have internationally-renowned chefs. It sits in a tepid middle ground, and is hopelessly trapped in the 1970s.

Image for Lola

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I thought that the Moosewood restaurant was somewhat overrated, at least in terms of its vegan offerings. The only lunch menu items that were vegan on the day that I was there were a hummus sandwich, some salads and a vegetable soup. All of the more interesting sounding menu items contained dairy or fish. The vegan chocolate cake was decent for a cake that claims to use bananas as its sole sweetener, but I found much better vegan desserts elsewhere in Ithaca. In short, Moosewood is a good place to go if you happen to be in the area, but I wouldn't make a special trip there.

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I've heard some people call the Moosewood Restaurant overrated, but I enjoyed my lunch there. The restaurant itself is really quite understated - warm yellow walls, simple wooden furniture, some couches, an area to buy cookbooks and such. The location is easy to miss too if you don't know the area. You have to enter through the little DeWitt Mall on the corner.
The lunch menu is pretty small (as is the dinner one, I'm sure). Moosewood usually offers about 4 soups, a handful of sandwich options, and a number of casseroles for lunch. Surprisingly, they also seem to really push the (alcoholic) drink menu (a real money-maker, I'm sure).
I had the tomato-basil soup and a sauteed veggie sandwich with smoked mozzarella. Both were simple, but excellent. My husband had a southwestern corn chowder and some kind of casserole. The soup was yummy (and made us want to go home and make it ourselves), but the casserole was kind of bland. Overall, I really enjoyed my Moosewood meal, even if the restaurant wasn't the fantastic experience I expected from the famed cookbook.

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