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Where's the Tofu?

A Waitsfield couple serves up meatless cuisine with flavor to spare


Published December 8, 2009 at 6:20 p.m.

It’s not always easy for vegetarians and omnivores to break bread together. At restaurants that serve meat, the former may find their choices limited to a limp salad and overcooked pasta. But strictly vegetarian eateries, when they can be found, seldom offer the savory tastes carnivores crave.

That’s why the fare at MINT, a Waitsfield restaurant and tea shop that opened in early November, is a pleasant surprise. Avowed meat lovers may find themselves scarfing down the hearty brown-rice bowl with citrus-laced greens and black turtle beans, or the crisp falafel special, which comes on a plate piled with homemade pita and lightly dressed salad and laced with tahini sauce. On a recent evening, crêpes stuffed with mung-bean dal, arugula and soy mozzarella were redolent of earthy Indian spices, with touches of sweetness from the raisins and a vinegary tang from the dressed greens.

Located on Bridge Street where The Spotted Cow used to be, MINT is one of the few eateries in Vermont that serves no flesh, fish or fowl. (A few offer vegetarian cuisine with meaty options alongside.) But married owners Savitri, 38 (who prefers to be known solely by her first name), and Iliyan Deskov, 28, don’t market their eatery as vegetarian. The way they see it, they’re simply making the foods they love to eat.

Not all diners are on board, of course. On a recent Saturday afternoon, Savitri watched as a couple sat down in a booth, examined the menu and walked out when they saw their options.

A vegetarian since reading Harvey and Marilyn Diamond’s Fit for Life in 1989, Savitri says she can no longer imagine what a meat eater might have for lunch. “We understand that food is a matter of taste,” she adds, “but we hope to be a really good match [with people]. You get bummed out when they leave.”

It’s no surprise to learn that MINT’s owners came to Vermont by way of California — a state known for its high population of vegetarians and vegans and, accordingly, its creative meatless cuisine. The details of their story are less common, though. Both are originally from Eastern Europe but met in Redondo Beach. Their romance followed on the heels of Deskov falling in love with veggie cuisine.

At 6, while still in Rousse, Bulgaria, Deskov browned some walnuts in the toaster oven and sent the kitchen up in flames. Despite that misadventure, he was always drawn to cooking. “I remember getting raw milk, skimming the cream off of it and beating it into butter,” he says.

When Deskov moved to Los Angeles at 19, his plan was to become an English teacher. But that changed when he began frequenting a Redondo Beach restaurant called The Green Temple, adjacent to the coffee shop where he worked. Although he’d grown up eating meat, Deskov was attracted to the vegetarian spot because “the environment and the food were so good.” He continues: “I smelled the smells, looked at the décor, and it felt like home. After eating there for a whole month, solely, I realized I was a de facto vegetarian.”

The Green Temple’s co-owner was Savitri, who’d grown up in Hungary. The daughter of a chef who used to accompany her mom to work in the kitchen, “I said I would never do that work,” she recalls. Drawn to more artistic pursuits, Savitri learned Italian and made plans to study industrial design in college, but she ended up landing a job at Fiat’s Hungarian branch. “I loved the life; I started traveling,” she says. By the time she was accepted to design school, she no longer wanted to attend.

After she moved to L.A., Savitri fell into the restaurant business, hosting at one of the first vegetarian eateries in Orange County. When it went out of business, a well-to-do patron who missed the food gave Savitri and a friend the chance to open their own similar eatery — The Green Temple, where Deskov eventually became an ardent patron.

Noting the young man’s interest, Savitri offered him a job. “It wasn’t a romantic thing at first,” she says. “I really liked his energy. He has a certain eloquence about him … and he is always happy, always smiling, always light.”

But it took some prompting for them to take the next step in their relationship. One evening, Savitri asked Deskov if he would play the accordion under her mother’s window to remind her of the old country, and he obliged. Her mother’s response: “This guy would be perfect for you if he were a little older.”

“I realized he was perfect anyway,” Savitri says.

Soon the two were a couple, and Deskov had enrolled at a nearby culinary school. They married in Savitri’s native Hungary and spent seven months there, then another few years in L.A. In 2008, the pair decided to make the Mad River Valley their home: Savitri says she felt drawn to the area after reading a Vermont Life article about American Flatbread.

For Savitri, a petite brunette with light freckles and numerous tattoos, MINT is more than a source of income; it’s also a source of inspiration. “Most restaurants lack something that’s very important to me; they seem to be places of routine,” she says, and confesses to feeling a “childlike enthusiasm” when patrons clean their plates. She cares about the physical environment as well as the food: “I’m always trying to keep [MINT] alive, changing things … I am the designer of this place.”

Her designer’s touch is evident in the draperies and pillows that add color to the dining room, the simply elegant wooden tables and booths, and the collection of teapots sold in the tea shop, located in an alcove at the front of the restaurant. The loose-leaf tisanes and teas range from the owners’ own herbal blends — including a Balkan mix with oregano and chamomile and a cold-fighting hibiscus lemongrass — to Asian greens, blacks and oolongs. Patrons can buy bags to go or snuggle up at a table with a warm brew and a book.

The front of the house is Savitri’s domain, but the back belongs to Deskov. Dark haired, sporting a small earring and wearing a chef coat with sleeves rolled up — revealing one of the telltale burns that mark cooks’ arms — he moves easily around the small kitchen. In mid-December, he’ll leave his full-time job as food and beverage director at the Grey Fox Inn to devote all his attention to MINT. “People like to know who’s cooking for them,” he says. “It’s good to be involved.”

How does he make MINT’s food taste so good? Deskov gives away a few veggie secrets as he mixes up a batch of marinated tofu, which makes an appearance alongside grains and beans in one of MINT’s $7 rice bowls. He notes that a two-to-one mixture of Bragg’s Liquid Aminos and organic, wheat-free tamari makes a great stand-in for salt, because it imparts “a little bit of that fermented flavor.” Deskov adds onion, garlic shredded on a Microplane grater, and dried basil, parsley and fennel seed to his bowl.

The key to a flavorful result, he suggests as he stirs, is giving the soy cubes plenty of time in a 400-degree oven, which allows them to steep in sauce as they bake. Spreading the tofu on a lightly oiled baking sheet, Deskov decides there’s not quite enough liquid to generate the proper amount of steam — which keeps the curd soft as it bathes in the sauce — so he pours on a bit of water.

According to this chef, one common but easily remedied cooking mistake is expecting a strong sauce to make up for bland ingredients. “The sauce is the last bit that makes everything come together. Everything else has to be flavored before the sauce reaches it,” he suggests. Not feeling inspired? A mix of lemon, tamari and garlic “makes anything good,” Deskov says.

When he whips up dal, an Indian dish of legumes simmered with spices, Deskov toasts his spices in butter before adding mung beans, and he makes sure to toss in the aromatics in a particular order.

Deskov is more enthusiastic about that butter than Savitri. Although the two agree on being meat-free, when it comes to ingredients such as eggs and milk, they are sometimes at odds: “There is a big [divide] between me and my wife,” Deskov says. “She would use everything vegan, and my understanding is that dessert can’t be good without butter.”

The sweets at MINT allow patrons to decide for themselves. On one evening, choices include tofu-based pumpkin pie and a lush lemon tart made with eggs and butter.

Despite his love of decadent desserts, Deskov says he doesn’t miss eating meat, and his wife agrees. Savitri describes the process of becoming vegetarian with lyrical fervor: “First you’re in that tunnel where it’s taking out things of your diet, and then you enter into this whole different world. You discover all the different herbs, all the different spices, all of the old traditions that have so many naturally vegetarian dishes. That’s a whole world to discover.”

And MINT’s owners do their best to put that world on your plate. It’s enough to make even some serious carnivores into contented vegetarians — at least for an evening.