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Taste Test: New Ethic Café

260 North Street, Burlington, 540-2834


Published October 8, 2008 at 5:16 a.m.

New Ethic Café has been a long time coming. First scheduled to open nearly a year ago, it faced delay after delay, but the buzz kept growing. The eatery finally started serving at the end of September in a multipurpose building on the corner of North Street and North Winooski Avenue, smack dab in the middle of the Old North End’s growing restaurant district. Dino’s Pizzeria, Globalmartvt.com, Viva Espresso and Panadero are just steps away, and it’s a few blocks to Pho Hong, New World Tortilla, Shalimar of India and — soon — Nunyuns.

But New Ethic offers something diners won’t find at any other restaurant in the area, or possibly even the state: cuisine that doesn’t use the meat or the labor of animals. (Yes, that includes insects: agave syrup takes the place of honey.) Future plans include nightly specials and an entire menu of raw foods, which will fill another underserved culinary niche.

To put this innovation in perspective, let’s keep in mind that only a handful of Vermont restaurants even approach veganism. On the Rise Bakery in Richmond is flesh-free, but dishes up cheesy wood-fired pizzas and breakfast sandwiches topped with orange-yolked, free-range eggs. Burlington’s Stone Soup offers chicken soup, turkey sandwiches and a weekly burger special alongside its generous selection of veggie fare. Even Montpelier’s Rhapsody, a macrobiotic hot and cold bar, provides patrons a small selection of maki made with fruits de mer.

It appears the market for vegan fare isn’t as significant in Vermont as it might be in, say, Berkeley. A restaurant that caters to such a small percentage of the population also needs to appeal to nonbelievers in order to thrive. And I believe New Ethic passes that test. Although omnivores — of which I’m one — may be wary of meat and dairy substitutes, plenty of items on this menu will appeal to open-minded eaters of all stripes.

New Ethic’s exterior is freshly painted pale yellow and blue, contrasting with its somewhat rundown surroundings. While the outside is promising, it’s still a surprise to step into the hip, spacious interior. The walls are a creamy avocado color — matching one of the salad dressings — and the lights are bulbous, Asian-style globes.

The tables are divided between the main dining room — slate-floored with lots of wood — and a sunny, slightly raised area overlooking North Street. For visitors who plan to read the paper while they sip coffee or an organic soda, there’s one comfy couch, too.

Though the place hasn’t been open long, a steady clientele of teens and twentysomethings is keeping the chairs warm. As befits its mostly Gen-Y crowd, New Ethic’s virtual traffic keeps pace with its RL visitors: Its Facebook group and MySpace pages boast plenty of friends.

Employees reflect the cool vi be. All three of the male staffers I saw on my two visits evinced a punk aesthetic that includes “gauged” ears. A prerequisite of employment? The service is friendly but nonchalant.

Older folks won’t be put off by New Ethic’s eclectic soundtrack, which is more retro than hardcore: One lunchtime, a Bon Jovi song segued into Rick James’ “Superfreak,” which gave way to Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” On another day, my husband threatened to show off his moonwalk as Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” filled the room. Luckily he refrained, but I did catch co-owner Owen Hoppe taking a break from stove duty to get his groove on.

Customers might notice a complete absence of tempeh and mushrooms when they order at the counter from a laminated menu; even tofu is scarce — it’s in only one dish of 14. They’ll be downright startled by the presence of three meaty-sounding dishes: a “Chicken Ranch” sandwich, a Moroccan-seasoned “Chicken Bocadillo” and a hefty “Soul Food Plate.” A note at the top of the menu reassures confused customers that “chicken” is a mere figure of speech: “New Ethic is a 100% purely vegetarian café, hence anything that seems to be non vegan, ain’t! So relax and enjoy.”

A pair of sandwiches listed as “Hand Helds” were satisfying and filling. The dense plantain burger ($7.75) came with a generous portion of the starchy tropical fruit, which is much lower in sugar than its cousin the banana. The plantain cakes were crispy on the outside and enhanced with a thin layer of the resto’s “special sauce.”

Even better: the homemade veggie burger ($7.25) with sweet chili sauce and sautéed onions. With a pleasant texture and great flavor, this is one lovable ’wich. Like the plantain version, the veggie patty was served on an appealing bun — just the right size for a filling, but not sleep-inducing, lunch. It’s a great option for nonvegetarians.

Being a free-range-fowl devotee, I was curious to see how New Ethic’s chicken substitute would measure up. So I ordered the “Soul Food Plate” ($7.95). Sadly, I found the dense, chewy cutlet hard to love, even though it was breaded and cooked to a tempting golden brown. It simply lacked the flavor and tender juiciness that makes poultry so delightful. The “chicken” strips were drizzled with a generous spoonful of a surprisingly creamy ranch-style dressing, and served with green beans, mashed potatoes and corn bread.

If you like your corn bread sweet, you’ll enjoy New Ethic’s kernel-studded version. The rustic mashed potatoes, prepared without the standard lashings of cream and butter, tasted earthy. As a potato fanatic, I found them perfectly acceptable, but added sprinkles of salt and pepper to the dusting of nutritional yeast — which, by itself, offered a savory touch and just a hint of salinity.

My least favorite side dish was the mac ’n’ cheese ($2.99) that tasted and smelled like fake butter. Its saving grace was the noodles themselves, cooked tender but not mushy.

More to my taste was a hearty entrée called the “Mexican Plate.” A generous mound of quinoa — a high-protein, high-fiber staple of ancient South American civilizations — was laden with tender black beans, fresh salsa, avocado, corn and scallions. My only complaint was that the dish would have been better balanced with a bit more tang — perhaps from lime juice — a scattering of fresh herbs and a hint of heat. I enjoyed the side of corn chips, which, like the mashed potatoes, were sprinkled with vitamin-rich yeast.

Creative salads are a must at any veggie-focused eatery, and they do them right at New Ethic. Intrigued by the concept of “coconut bacon,” I tried the “Cobb Salad” ($6.95) and loved it. The hickory-smoked coconut chips didn’t actually taste like pork, but they were crunchy and delicious. The dark brown flakes were sprinkled on a hefty bed of perfect-looking mesclun greens, tomatoes and red onion, and topped with more of the yummy ranch dressing. Other ingredients included avocado chunks at their peak — too many restaurants serve them hard and under-ripe — and fetching yellow crumbles of flavorful, seasoned tofu.

The fakin’ bacon also shows up in the “J.T. III BLT” ($7.25) and as a topping on the “Potato Plate” ($6.95), which comes with pseudo-sour cream, scallions and a side of green beans. It’s on the list for my next visit.

The “Thai Salad” ($6.95) was a winner, too, though it didn’t showcase the herbal flavors of basil, cilantro and lemongrass usually associated with Thai cuisine. The fetching, pale-green coconut and avocado dressing was heavy on the garlic; it could have used additional salt or an extra squeeze of lime. Nori strips gave the salad a pleasant crunch.

Happily, my visit coincided with one of three weekly “vegan donut” days. The golden-brown rounds, glazed with sticky syrup, were light and airy. And they went down perfectly with strong, hot mugs of Vermont Coffee Company brew.

With a name like New Ethic, this small Old North End café is putting some pressure on itself. But ethical eating here refers to Hoppe’s commitment to critter-free cuisine. The word “organic” doesn’t appear anywhere on his menu, and there is no indication that any of the produce is sourced locally.

But if you’re looking for creative, “pure vegetarian” cuisine served up in an artful, chill environment, a visit to New Ethic Café may qualify as a moral imperative.