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Pleasin' the vegans 

What were you doing when you were 22? I was working as a busboy and a DJ, trying desperately not to borrow money from my parents. Meg Davis, on the other hand, owns, runs, and cooks everything at The Atomic Eggplant. That's impressive. And so is she.

            With the closures of Slice of Life, which was strictly vegetarian, and Grill 339 and Savory Thyme, both of which had vegetarian choices, The Atomic Eggplant is the only non-ethnic, vegetarian restaurant in town. That makes it not just unique, but important. And its volume of business bears that out.

            It's a captive market, but not a monolithic one. There's no meat, but customers find reasons to complain: white flour tortillas, non-organic produce, cheese. Davis will cater to almost any diet, be it vegan, gluten intolerant, Ornish, or whatever. Be specific about your dietary quirks, and Davis will deal.

            If vegetarianism is one cornerstone, another is value. You won't find anything over $10, and portions go from large to obtusely massive. Spend more than $10, and you'll have more food than you can eat.

            The food isn't subtle, but most of it is good. I loved the hummus, rich with garlic, and the large falafel are crisp but not dry inside, spicy and delicious. The pita should be better, and Davis is working on it. Baba gannoujwas slightly bitter, but eggplants are hardly in season (consequently, you'll find little of the restaurant's namesake vegetable). Piles of all that plus excellent veggies came as mezeda for $7.95 (the Ithaca pupu platter). It was plenty for four adults.

            Nachos are usually perfunctory, hard to eat, and made with substandard ingredients, but these were great ($5.95). The chips were fried fresh, which makes an enormous difference. Also, the tomatoes and olives were excellent. Miso soup and black bean chili (both $2.50 a cup, $3.95 a bowl) are always available, and there are usually several other soups. Tomato-portobello was interesting but very sweet.

            Like Slice of Life, Atomic Eggplant offers a variety of sandwiches. Three types of burger, veggie (TVP), spinach, and black bean; each are $6.95 with salad, soup, or excellent fried potatoes. Various tempeh and tofu sandwiches are $7.95 with a side. My wife, Anne, liked the seared portabella sandwich, but would have preferred feta to asiago and a white roll to wheat.

            Vegetarian restaurants often make sacrifices to their politics. Wheat rolls and brown rice aren't right for everything. But when you're baking all the breads, doing all the cooking, and trying to please this particular audience, you do what you must. Thankfully, you can get white flour tortillas and pitas.

            The menu also has a Cal-Ithaca-Tex-Mex section. A sandbag-sized taco, just $5.95, would feed two sumo wresters. You get a choice of tofu, black beans, chili, or guacamole, with condiments, cheese, and salsa, plus sides of rice and beans. We ordered one each for three children. Don't make the same mistake, as this isn't the best leftover food.

            There are also some stir fries and pastas. My vegetarian friends loved tofu and veggies in a peanut-ginger sauce (small, $7.95; large, $9.95). Its deep, smoky flavor went well with brown rice. The vegans won't be having the linguine in chipotle cream sauce ($9.95), but that's their loss.

            Our server, Patrick, kept everything "cool" with us and our passel of children. He personifies the laid-back, groovy atmosphere, dishing out and taking kidding well. He graciously lost an argument with my daughter, Iris. There are goofy toys on the tables, and varied original art throughout. A large patio out back will be the place to be when summer heat creeps into the building.

            Almost all the desserts are vegan, which, Davis admits, makes them a challenge to bake. Still, the gargantuan fudge brownie had great flavor and a decent texture. The organic, fair-trade coffee is actually quite full-bodied. And there is a variety of juices, spritzers, smoothies, and other non-alcoholic drinks.

            The Atomic Eggplant has some flaws, and isn't for everyone. The lack of subtlety bothered me, with some dishes quite sweet, some too salty. White rice would be nice. Also, with Davis cooking everything from scratch by herself, you might have a wait. I wasn't in a hurry, and didn't mind. Some days I would.

            Nothing can replace Slice of Life for me, but The Atomic Eggplant fills an important niche with style. It's open almost all the time (unlike Slice), has great value, and is, as Patrick would say, "cool." Smart, industrious, and charismatic, Meg Davis seems certain to be a success. Considering what she's accomplished at 22, I'm betting on it.

The Atomic Eggplant, 75 Marshall Street, 325-6750. Hours: after Mothers' Day, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Food tip

Out of the kitchen and into the Market! Saturday, May 3, is Chef's Day at the Rochester Public Market. From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. chefs will do demonstrations on a grill in front of the main office. It's a wonderful opportunity to visit with the chefs, pick up some recipes, and then shop for your dinner. The event is free.

---Michael Warren Thomas

Michael can be heard on WYSL 1040. Tune in on Saturdays for gardening, restaurants, and travel from 9 a.m. to noon, and on Sundays for antiques and wine from 10 a.m. to noon. Archives of past shows are available at www.SavorLife.com.

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