There are certain places to which every chef and food-lover must make a pilgrimage. One of those places is the Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, New York.
Ithaca in itself is worth the trip upstate even without Moosewood being there. Part of the Finger Lakes region, it is a gorgeous area dotted with waterfalls and brimming with wineries and distilleries. You can do a wine/spirits trail, a cheese trail, waterfall trail, or go kayaking in summer or skiing in winter. Sticking to the topic of food, you can go to several ice cream shops for homemade ice cream, such as the Cayuga Lake Creamery on Route 89, along Cayuga Lake, where I had maple walnut ice cream and several other flavors, such as cinnamon, which tasted like freshly ground cassia. There’s also the Purity Ice Cream shop on Cascadilla St., which claims to have invented the first ice cream sundae. (Although several other places around the country have made the same claim.) At Purity, I had “boomberry” ice cream—black raspberry ice cream studded with pieces of cherries, blueberries and strawberries. It was simply to die for. And I can tell you that “one scoop” in Ithaca is radically different than “one scoop” in NYC—way more than I’m used to getting. The Ithaca’s Farmer’s Market is also a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours.
Now, onto Moosewood.
Moosewood has been a natural foods restaurant since 1973 and is collectively owned and the owners work in the restaurant. I’ve been looking at their cookbooks and even remember seeing Molly Katzen’s TV show now and then in the 1990s and I’ve wanted to go ever since.
It’s quite elegant looking on the outside, with white lights adorning the windows and ivy growing along the historic brick school building that the restaurant calls home in the Dewitt Mall on Cayuga Street. I was worried for a couple of minutes about whether my dinner companion and I were dressed appropriately (we had on shorts and hikers and sandals). But once inside, I saw how casual the atmosphere was. There were people there who were dressed for a special evening and others, some with children, who looked as if this is one of their local eateries. And I guess it is.
Truly, the décor is so unassuming as to be almost boring, but I don’t think anyone ever goes for the ambiance. The food is the star of the show here. However, I think sitting outside is probably quite lovely on a beautiful day (we chose to sit inside because it was a hot day and we desperately needed the air conditioning). There was an issue with the menus—we had to wait a bit because they had run out of menus, which seemed odd, unless their printer had broken down—but at no time did we feel rushed. We ordered and ate at our leisure. Two points for that.
I had a white sangria, made with organic white Cottonwood wine, fresh orange and lemon juices, and seltzer and it had pieces of apple and pear and grapes soaking in the bottom of the glass. It was light and fresh and just what I needed after a warm day of Farmer’s Market shopping and watching kayakers make their way down Cayuga Lake.
Both our dinners began with a green salad. The greens were very fresh and it was a nice blend that included baby greens. My companion chose the miso dressing and felt that there could have been a little more of it and that it would have been improved by the addition of sesame seeds. I thought my honey-Dijon was just right. However, more than one olive in our salads would have been nice (we both love olives).
We split a black bean dip with organic nachos. The dip was cumin-y and a bit smoky, but slightly sweet, smooth on the tongue and flecked with pieces of black bean. We discovered that it paired very well with the grape tomatoes that came on the plate.
I ordered the Caribbean Vegetable Stew with Jerk Tofu. This was a mélange of sweet potatoes, okra, kale, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, onions, ginger, and chilis served over brown rice. While it was slightly on the spicy side, it was otherwise very lightly seasoned. Some people would probably say that it was bland, but I thought it worked well because I was able to taste each individual vegetable on its own, and I think that’s what they were going for. The tofu was spicy but nicely balanced by the brown rice.
I think my partner made the best possible choice with the Polenta Lasagna. It was full of flavor, enhanced immensely by the ricotta and mozzarella. The polenta they used was the coarse kind, which gave it a chewy, toothsome texture, and the eggplant, zucchini, and yellow squash were nicely grilled. The dish had the allure of comfort food but it was elevated comfort food.
The portions were good—big enough to feel that you actually ate but small enough that if you finished it all, you wouldn’t feel like a fatted goose. Although neither one of us finished everything on our plate, we came pretty close. This, however, prevented us from being able to order dessert. I decided I’d save dessert for the next day.
I had planned on having lunch there the following day (Sunday) but I was extremely disappointed to find that it was closed. It was my mistake for assuming they were open without checking, but who knew the restaurant would opt out of serving the Sunday brunch crowd. (I knew I should have ordered that dessert while I had the chance.) So, unfortunately, my experience with Moosewood’s food is limited to, and I can only base my opinion on, those few items. So far.
Was it the most fabulous meal I’ve ever had? No. But their goal is to provide good, high-quality, healthy meals that taste good, make you feel satisfied, and are kind to the earth. I think they’ve succeeded.