Patrons of the Old North End's China Express easily recognize Owen Hoppe. For more than four years, the fair-haired, copiously tattooed manager took orders and ran credit cards at the energetic take-out and delivery spot. Despite abstaining from meat on principle, Hoppe spooned up an awful lot of General Tso's chicken and Hunan beef for hungry customers.
Soon, though, Hoppe will get to dish up cuisine that conforms to his personal philosophy. He's the chef and a partner - with China Express' Sam Lai - in New Ethic Café on the corner of North Street and North Winooski Avenue. The café was slated to open nearly a year ago, but was bogged down in a variety of delays.
Now, finally, the interior is complete, and the owners are shooting for a September 1 entrée, provided "all of the inspections go well," Hoppe attests: "The plumbing is done, everything's done; we're just tying it all together." He says the "old eclectic space" now boasts a slate floor, "lots of wood" and earth tones, but "not a single straight line."
According to the plan, though, what the space lacks in geometric perfection it will make up for in culinary wholesomeness. The food will be what Hoppe calls "pure vegetarian." That means no animal products of any kind will be available on the premises. Hoppe even eschews honey: "I'm way not down with honey," he explains. "Domestication of bees is not going to save bees."
What can patrons use to sweeten their beverages? Agave nectar. "I don't know why people around here don't use it," he muses. "There are as many grades of nectar as there are maple syrup." And it dissolves readily in cold liquids.
Savory fare will include dishes such as a "BLT" made with coconut chips seasoned to taste like bacon and Hoppe's fave plantain burger. There will be an ova-free Sunday brunch, and made-from-scratch vegan donuts three days a week. Eventually Hoppe intends to add a full raw-food menu, but he needs to invest in some equipment first. "I don't want to cheap out on it," he says. Until then, look for the roughage in daily raw specials.
Does Hoppe think the meat-free thing will fly? He's banking on it. "I feel like vegetarian food is the new ethnic food," he explains. "I think people go, 'Hey, let's go get vegetarian food.'" He also sees NEC as a destination for "dudes out there whose girlfriends are vegetarian." "I want this to be the kind of place they won't mind going to," he says.
Ginny St. John, co-owner of the soon-to-open Dragonfly Café in Colchester, is going for quite a different niche - she hopes to attract lovers of traditional, home-style comfort food such as spaghetti and meatballs, tuna salad and sirloin steaks.
When it opens - she's shooting for September 22 - Dragonfly will do three meals a day, seven days a week. "What we're trying to do is create an atmosphere where the food is very good, but if people only have a half-hour for lunch, they can still come in and make it back on time," St. John explains. Busy business bees will be able to tap into free Wi-Fi.
Although patrons order at the counter to get their yogurt parfaits, luncheon salads and sandwiches made with house-roasted meats, suppertime will bring tablecloths and table service. "Dinner will take on a different feel," she says. "We're hoping to offer a nice selection of specials each day so people won't get tired of the restaurant. We'll have a nice salmon; we'll have vegetarian." A pair of culinary school graduates will whip up the savory fare, while St. John does all the baking.
In the summer, the kitchen crew will pack picnic lunches in coolers with the Dragonfly logo. Year round they'll have pre-made casseroles that busy folks can take home and pop in the oven. "It'll be a special menu of foods that transport well," she says.
St. John doesn't have a background in the food industry - until recently, she was the director of surgery at Fletcher Allen Health Care. But she's always dreamed of having her own eatery. Finally "the opportunity presented itself, and I said, 'Let's do it,'" she recalls.
Is she concerned about launching her biz during a tough economic period? Not a bit. "When it's stressful times, a nice place to eat is even more important," St. John conjectures. "I don't think I'd be opening a restaurant that was just dinner and $30 a plate right now. Our mission is having food at a reasonable price."