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: Robust (227 W. Lockwood Avenue; 314-963-0033)
Neighborhood: Webster Groves
Overview: Like cicadas at the end of a 13-year cycle, wine bars are everywhere these days. And like cicadas, many wine bars make a lot of noise, only to burn out from overexertion...or just bad food. Webster Groves' Robust, though, has found a way to prosper, serving food that's good enough to match the extensive and impressive wine list. Much of this success has to do with the presentation of their food, which often comes in the form of tapas. In fact, we just voted Robust "Best Tapas/Small Plates" for 2011, and we think you oughtta know that there are some excellent vegetarian choices to discover, including heirloom tomato salads and wild mushroom flatbreads.
The Grub: When chef Eric Brenner took over the kitchen and menu this summer, he brought a renewed commitment to delicious food. Evidence of that is found in the exceptional heirloom tomato salad, which magically combines the best elements of caprese and panzanella salads. We'd have liked more basil, but our only issue was with quantity, not quality. And we loved the roasted cipollinis and shallots -- two ingredients we hardly ever see paired together.
The wild mushroom flatbread is another solid option, although we'd really like to see them use a more, er, robust cheese. And it wasn't just that we wanted something sharper -- there wasn't nearly enough cheese for the bread, either. On the plus side, the wild mushrooms were plentiful, and the arugula was vibrant and peppery. The crust was most impressive (see Exhibit A for evidence of the flatbread's glorious char).
Seasonality/sourcing: The menu may not change as often as we'd like, but Robust does try to choose offerings comprised of seasonal produce.
Resistance to clichés (vegetable medleys, pre-made veggie burgers, etc.): Beet salads, hummus, heirloom tomato salads and flatbreads aren't exactly progressive, but many of Robust's conventional dishes are prepared with unconventional ingredients (e.g., the pickled vegetables served with the roasted red pepper hummus).
Improvisations & accommodations (vegan, gluten-free, etc.): This is definitely not the place for vegans, but folks with gluten-free diets can find plenty to sate their appetites.
Extra credit: Above average, if somewhat overwhelming, wine list, with the option to order small pours. Brilliant!
Standout item: heirloom tomato salad