Saturday, April 28, 2012

Vegetarians: It’s Our Job to Give Restaurants a Hard Time

Last night, I had a girls’ night out with some friends.  We had wine on the outdoor patio at the Benjamin Knox wine bar, then we drove across town for sushi at Kamei Sushi and Grill.  Happy hour was lovely—the evening was warm, the sun setting, and a light breeze tickled our skin and playfully threatened to knock over our wine glasses.  Strings of old-fashioned lights twinkled above us, and we talked and laughed and shared our news with one another.  I love wine o’clock.

Our sushi dinner was a challenge for me, but I am going to count this one as a success.  I had checked the menu beforehand to see what they offered for vegans.  I was in the mood for sushi, and surely they must have some vegan sushi, right?  There is no reason why they can’t roll some vegetables into sushi form and serve it beautifully, right?  I did see that they had an avocado roll, a cucumber roll, and an avocado/cucumber roll, so that was a start.  But beyond that, all I saw was a roll with egg (no, not vegan), tofu skin (yuck—no thanks), shiitake mushrooms (maybe…), and some other ingredients.  The fact that that roll had three no/maybe ingredients in it made me feel less than enthusiastic about ordering it.  Nevertheless, I forged ahead and found myself in the restaurant, staring at the menu, confused and starting to fill with frustration.  Were avocado and cucumber my only options for sushi?  My heart was sinking in disappointment.

My friends could tell I was becoming frustrated, and they convinced me to make the server tell me what my vegetarian (vegan) options were.  Our server listed the items I’d already seen plus an additional sushi roll: the futo maki roll, with egg, avocado, cucumber, shiitake, and tempura yam.  Wow, it sounded delicious and possibly even vegan if I left off the egg!  When it arrived, it was plated beautifully, as sushi should be, with squiggles of yellow sauce on top.

On a whim, I asked my friends to teach me how to use chopsticks, and I was able to eat my whole sushi meal without requesting a fork.  I felt proud, like a baby who has taken her first steps unassisted.  Chopsticks, fin-free sushi, my lovely friends…it was a great evening.

But was my sushi vegan?  I don’t know.  Who knows what that yellow sauce was?  I suspect it was spicy mayo, but I’m not sure, and I didn’t taste the sauce by itself.  The menu does not list mayo as a condiment for the futo maki roll; next time I am at Kamei, I will ask because I am curious.  Perhaps I failed at ordering a vegan meal again, but considering the fuss I raised with our server, and the fact that I finally managed to eat a dairy-free meal somewhere other than my own kitchen, I will consider this a success.

I think when we, as vegetarians, bring our needs to a restaurant’s attention, we are forcing them to acknowledge that their menu may be inadequate.  Over time, I am becoming more and more comfortable with giving restaurants a hard time (nicely, of course—I’m never rude) about their vegetarian options.  I’m more willing to order off the menu, or make a meal out of different parts that don’t constitute a single menu offering.  And I’m finding that every time, restaurants will rise to the challenge.  That’s not to say that all of these meals are spectacular, but most are pretty darn good.  And I feel both proud of myself for asking for what I need and humbled by the restaurant’s efforts to make me happy.

I am not very good at asking for what I need.  That is what I learned in therapy a few years ago.  Who knew that vegetarianism would challenge me to become better at asking?  Vegetarianism has brought so much happiness and abundance into my life in the form of good health, delicious food, a deeper commitment to environmentalism, and now, more assertive in relationships both serious and casual.  It’s hard to be a timid vegetarian.  You’ve got to be bold about your convictions.  I wonder to what extent the ideals of vegetarianism have embraced me, rather than the other way around.

* * *

PS  I want to say thank you to all of you who voted in my little survey!  I’m working on my sweet tooth post now, and I’ll be following that up with some other posts that you all have requested.  There will probably be some additional posts between the planned topics, as my month of veganism is coming to an end soon and I want to spend some time reflecting on what I learned.


phoenixed said...

You might want to give tofu skin a chance. It's sweet and fatty and tasty. And chances are you've already had it at a sushi party long ago...

Also many Chinese fake-meats are based on layering it to emulate the texture of meat.

Rosiecat said...

Hey, friend! I have tried tofu skin, at a dim sum restaurant in Houston. I didn't like it--I thought it was greasy and unpleasantly chewy. But perhaps it works better in sushi than on its own? I might give it a try the next time I visit Kamei.

Maybe I'll come around on tofu skin. After all, I seem to be coming around on mushrooms, little by little...

Koree said...

Just wanted to say that chinese tofu skin (which you ate at a dim sum restaurant) and japanese tofu skin (which is the type served with sushi) are very different.

The best part of Japanese tofu skin is the sweetness, and it is not crispy with sushi.

I hope you do give it a try! :)

Rosiecat said...

Ah, thank you, Koree! I will heed your advice and try some Japanese tofu skin the next time I have the opportunity. (I do love vegetarian sushi--so beautifully plated and so delicious to eat.)

Jeremy said...

So wonderful for you to feel comfortable sharing your wishes with the restaurant, Rose-Anne!

Restaurants are like any business, and they exist because they are able to fulfill (or create) demand. Local restaurants don't typically have the resources to conduct vast market research, so we can sleep well knowing that direct feedback from their marketplace is actually extremely helpful.

I always couch my vegan requests in the language of business... these are profitable menu items (vegans are accustomed to higher going-out prices for food), that you can sell to very loyal customers (vegans tend to come back to support establishments that support them). Also, there's something we like to call the vegan-veto factor: if I'm eating with a group of people, I will veto any restaurant choice that doesn't offer vegan options.

As much as it benefits us vegans directly, it really is in their business interest to offer options! Keep up the great work!