The Owl House
75 Marshall St.
Tue-Sun 11 a.m.-4 p.m. (lunch) & 5-10:30 p.m. (dinner)
When is a vegetarian restaurant not a vegetarian restaurant? The fact that it serves meat would be a pretty good clue. It would seem, then, that The Owl House, which occupies the space on Marshall Street that was once home to The Atomic Eggplant, is not a vegetarian restaurant. Among its many vegetarian and vegan offerings you will find pulled pork, grilled steak, and fish -- clearly not vegetarian fare. But I'm not sure that that doesn't make The Owl House a vegetarian restaurant at heart.
Chef Brian Van Etten and owners Andrea Parros and Jeff Ching set out to open a restaurant that is, as Van Etten put it, "accessible to every taste out there," be it vegan, vegetarian, or omnivore. The menu they developed is eminently successful: every plate that comes out of Van Etten's tiny kitchen offers an attractive array of colors and textures, along with surprisingly rich and complex flavors that meld together to create food that is always more than the sum of its parts.
Take his tacos ($10), for instance. Van Etten starts with spicy shreds of braised pork shoulder (or tilapia or house-smoked tofu) on fresh-made tortillas. He tops the meat with a cool yet spicy salsa verde, guacamole, and chipotle sour cream, and serves it with a generous helping of cabbage, corn, and black-bean slaw with tiny shreds of tarragon in it. My impulse was to transfer the slaw and beans to the tacos, and I'm certain that's exactly what Van Etten intended. The result was a glorious mess. These are tacos that are best eaten with a knife and fork, and that's just fine given that each bite offers a uniform set of what the chef describes as "layers of flavor." It's delicious, if a bit disconcerting. While you expect uniformity of taste from soups and curries and other similar dishes where the entire dish speaks with one voice, being unable to pick out any individual elements in your taco takes some getting used to.
That, in part, is what leads me to say that The Owl House might well be a vegetarian restaurant -- and a damn good one at that. In more meat-centered cooking, the protein is often a center-of-the-plate item, something that is featured and supported by the other elements of the dish. The sauce complements the meat, the veg tends to offer bites of balance or a nice green flavor to cut through fat, the starch is there to act as both background and filler. In the great vegetarian cuisines that have been adapted to incorporate meat, when it shows up at all, it is more of a condiment. Think particularly of Indian food, where every bite of a dish has the same flavors melded into a harmonious whole. Have you ever, say, picked the chicken out of a dish of chicken makhani and said that the meat itself was delicious? Probably not. That's exactly what happens at The Owl House.
The meatiest item on the menu after the tacos is the Cherub ($9). Generous slices of gorgeously crusted medium-rare steak form the base layer for roasted portobello mushrooms, sweet-salty pickled red onions, baby arugula, and a heavenly gorgonzola mayonnaise on the best baguette I've ever tasted. The bread alone, baked for The Owl House by Baker Street Bakery on Park Avenue, is sensational -- just crusty enough to be substantial and toothsome, but soft and sweet enough within to be the perfect canvas for just about anything you put on it. Here, it encases another of those amazing layered flavors that Van Etten is so gifted at creating. You might not ever notice more than the texture of the meat, but you'll definitely appreciate the contribution that it makes to your sandwich. The char on the meat and that tiny bit of blood mix with the peppery bite of arugula and the pungency of gorgonzola in ways that are simply impossible to describe. This is a great lunch choice.
There is one item on the menu, though, that Van Etten describes as his "jam," the best thing that he makes and the one in which he takes the most pride: his take on the Vietnamese banh-mi sandwich. The Saigon ($8) really is the best thing on a menu full of very good choices. Starting with another one of those great baguettes, Van Etten slathers on a roasted garlic-enriched vegan mayonnaise and then layers on slices of tofu that he smokes himself, followed by housemade pickled cucumber and carrot, a caramelized onion marmalade flavored with lime and cilantro, and baby arugula. Van Etten told me that when he and his partners were sampling items for the menu, that this particular dish had struck them all dumb with pleasure. I have no problem believing that. It may be the best sandwich I've ever tasted, and I'll surely be returning for one on a regular basis.
Where most of the entrees on Van Etten's menu reach for, and achieve, something akin to a finished painting, the appetizer menu offers guests an opportunity to assemble a palette of their own. Almost all of his appetizers feature distinct items and tastes that allow you to take a little of this and that and see how things go together. His curried cashews ($2) were so good that my companion and I mourned for several days that we forgot to take the leftovers home with us -- salty, spicy, sweet, and buttery all at the same time. Chase a couple of cashews with a bite of housemade pickle ($2) and your mouth will light up like a slot machine. The fries, too, are models of their kind: crispy with a good potato flavor and tossed with a judicious amount of crushed rosemary, black pepper, and kosher salt ($4). Served with a dish of spicy ketchup that Van Etten makes himself (he makes pretty much everything himself), these may be the reason that you have leftovers to take home at the end of the meal, since you'll empty the plate and fill up before your entrée ever arrives. Rounded out with a pint of beer from the Owl House's small but well selected beer list -- including a permanent tap for Rochester's newest brewery, Three Heads -- a selection of several of the appetizers on Van Etten's menu would make a great light supper or a truly indulgent winter-time lunch.