The Veggielante has had it up to here with people bitching that St. Louis restaurants are vegetarian unfriendly. Sure, we'd like to see more restaurants offering more meatless dishes, but there are excellent choices out there if you take the trouble to look for them. We're not here to proselytize about greening up your diet. Our only motive is to spread the word about places where you can order good grub that ain't got no meat. To enhance your reading experience, we've settled on a handful of criteria we'll use to suss out a restaurant's vegetarian friendliness.
Destination: Franco (1535 South Eighth Street; 314-436-2500)
Overview: Franco doesn't mess around. Food here is exalted, customers revered. Franco's menu goes through many permutations throughout the year, maintaining a strong focus on seasonal and locally sourced ingredients. (Currently featured: mushrooms from Ozark Forest and asparagus from Scharf Farm in Millstadt, Illinois). Don't expect to find rote preparations, either. The kitchen seems to relish improvisation -- a boon for those who value the option of going meatless.
The Grub: A vegetarian tartlet that featured perfectly sautéed and remarkably fresh organic mushrooms from Ozark Forest, was delicately flaky and savory. Ravioli stuffed with goat cheese, pine nuts and watercress were tasty enough to satisfy omnivores and herbivores alike, though the cheese was a bit too timid to hold up to the flavors of the watercress and pine nuts.
But by far the most striking vegetarian offering on Franco's spring menu is the crudité salad trio. The threesome: celery root remoulade; carrots and raisins; and beets in vinaigrette. All were ultra-fresh and delicious, and the Veggielante would happily chow down on a full serving of any of them, any day. Even at that, however, the rémoulade was a standout, unlike any salad you'll find in the city -- and quite possibly better than any you'll find, as well.
Pommes frites were high on our list of must-haves because 1) Franco makes 'em in a fryer dedicated to vegetables only, and 2) they're magical.
Ability/willingness to improvise
Resistance to clichés (e.g. vegetable medleys, pre-made veggie burgers, etc.) Nothing about Franco is cliché. Even when if the menu's only vegetarian entrée is a pasta dish, you're going to get a well-thought-out dish with interesting ingredients and a unique preparation. Case in point: the goat cheese and watercress ravioli, made with pasta that's prepared from scratch each day and presented gorgeously.
Other dietary accommodations (vegan, gluten-free, etc.) You might not find any vegan or gluten-free items on Franco's menu. But if you call ahead, they'll happily do their best to make you happy. (And keep in mind that not many dietary restrictions rule out pommes frites!)
Extra credit: Plenty to go round here, from surprise additions to the menu, stunning presentations, flawless preparation and exceptional service. But we'll reserve this bonus praise for Franco's respect and welcoming attitude toward vegetarian visitors.
Standout item: Crudité salad trio
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