Up to that moment, we'd been steeped in conversation -- seduced by the dining room's creamy lighting, the multifaceted wine and the narrow but ensnaring view of the city's downtown skyline out a side door. But my chum's boyfriend suddenly frowns in confusion.
"I don't get it," he exclaims. "What's the crab cake made of if they don't serve meat here?"
"Textured vegetable protein," blurt my friend and I in unison. She turns to me and we laugh knowingly. We're both veterans of vegetarianism.
Dining in vegetarian restaurants can be an enigmatic experience. You're never quite sure, on your first visit, what to expect. Some places specialize in Asian, Buddhist-style preparations of tofu and other resourceful, soy-based contrivances that emulate meat. (Tastes like chicken? Not really.) Then there are the infamous earth-shoe eateries that doll out gut-clogging numbers like wheat berry-brown rice casserole adorned with a pound of half-melted mozzarella. They are largely extinct, particularly in this city.
The last two decades have seen the evolution of the upscale American vegetarian restaurant, blessedly free of the dogma and rhetoric you often have to wade through to get a meal at some veggie hangouts. The most successful -- and satisfying -- of these vegetarian ventures, like Greens and Millennium in San Francisco or Cafe Flora in Seattle, rely on the same foundation all well-regarded restaurants adhere to: Use quality ingredients and hire committed cooks to treat them with respect. Herbivores and carnivores can eat recognizable food together without fearing the meat eater will be grumbling for the proverbial pizza on the way home.
Lush strives to be in the upscale vegetarian -- vegan, actually -- genre. It succeeds in atmosphere and service. You wind your way up the potholed road across from Sotto Sotto and Fritti to the restaurant's perch at the top of the hill. The patio is surrounded by verdant greenery. Walls are painted colors that make you hungry -- pumpkin, avocado, lemon -- and are covered with thoughtful, geometric art. Staffers bring smiles and an engaging sparkle in their eyes to the table. I just wish they were delivering better food.
The kitchen, currently helmed by Nicholas Domingo, is still finding its direction after six months in business. Gone is the maligned "mock lobster" martini (conceived by a departed chef), but adventures in meaty mockery still abound.
The crab cake that so confused my friend's beau does indeed have a fishy note under its crunchy fried exterior. It reminds me of frozen fish sticks. Not a flavor I missed during my vegetarian years, I can assure you.
The grilled tuna has a convincing shape and color, and seaweed imparts a piscine presence, but the coconut broth in which it rests undoes any pleasure in the illusion. The broth has been walloped with the flavor of orange, distorting every ingredient -- including innocent corn and shiitake mushrooms -- in its citrusy path.
Which brings me to the overwhelming issue at Lush: There's too much sweet in the food. Crispy potato latkes are stacked with a vanilla-scented apple chutney. Vanilla as a savory component can be an elusive, almost erotic, aromatic. But this dish beats you over the head with it. The latkes end up tasting like the love child of apple pie and french fries.
Mongolian beef stir fry has a sugary sauce that is only magnified by the pineapple fried rice mixed into the jumble. The crispy Szechwan glazed tofu? You can hear it in the name: cloying.
It's an irony I don't get. Sweet is the one thing a vegetarian can eat anywhere. Why not court flavors and textures typically unavailable to non-meat eaters when they dine out? How about incorporating some chipotle chiles for smokiness, or tempeh for toothiness?
Perhaps the most bewildering dish is the Pad Thai. Lose the fish sauce and substitute extra-firm tofu for shrimp from the traditional dish and you've got yourself a meatless meal. How to explain, then, Lush's flavorless mass of limp noodles tossed with undercooked vegetable slivers in a sickly sour sauce with no trace of peanut?
Once you wade through the sweet traps and the misfires, pleasures can be found. The Belgian endive salad is ideal for days when you crave something light and vegetable-intense. The bitter endive marries with maple-tinged hazelnuts, Asian pear provides astringent crunch and a creamy vinaigrette binds it all into symphony.
The chilaquiles entree has numerous fans for good reason. Chile-flavored tortillas are layered with roasted eggplant and zucchini, black bean chili and a dollop of smooth guacamole. No gimmicks -- just simple, gutsy food.
If your sweet tooth isn't saturated by dessert time, try the Banana Lush Cream pie. This thing is a miracle of modern food engineering. Don't think about the fact that it's not really dairy. Simply enjoy the sensation of the luscious mystery topping dissolving in your mouth.
Vegetarian/vegan cuisine has some daunting, innate challenges. Unless you're cooking Chinese or Indian, there are no guiding parameters -- no tradition telling you to avoid cheese with seafood risotto, or to cringe when someone adds wasabi to mashed potatoes. But that challenge can also be a blessing in the hands of a passionate chef who flows with the seasons and finds innovative ways to satisfy the hungers of the meat-free. The world is your oyster -- or oyster mushroom, as the case may be.
There's a dearth of quality vegetarian restaurants in Atlanta. Even with its shortcomings, Lush is the finest we've got. Here's hoping it refines its culinary philosophy and takes wing to greener pastures.