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Vegetarian Bliss at Thoreau in Northern Liberties


ThoreauSo, I’ve got this friend who's smart, funny, but has that one glaring character flaw: she’s a vegetarian. Blech. And not one of those “vegetables are a healthier choice” vegetarians, but one of those uber annoying “awww... the poor widdle chickens” vegetarians who think sitting firmly atop the food pyramid is a despicable quality. What can I say? I’m proud to be a carnivore.

In spite of that, she’s always asking me to open my palate to the world of vegetarian cuisine, a challenge I’ve vehemently resisted. I don’t dislike vegetables; quite often, with the right preparation, I very much enjoy them. I am just of the belief that a meal is not a meal without some kind of protein. Not every meal has to feature a gigantic steak, but I need some weight to a dish to feel satisfied.

And so, with a healthy amount of skepticism I sat down for a meal at Thoreau, the new vegetarian spot on Spring Garden opened by Chef Mike Jackson of Blue Sage Vegetarian Grille fame. Named after super transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, who famously spent two years living in the woods and rejecting societal norms (including butcher shops, I imagine), Thoreau’s décor keeps it as simple as its spiritual inspiration, with a powder blue interior and tables lined with soft, plush chairs. The space is so tiny it foregoes a host stand in order to squeeze in a few extra tables, maximizing its space (which fills up fairly quickly). The menu is completely vegetarian, with certain menu items marked as strictly vegan (and further marked for vegetarian items that can be made vegan).

ThoreauThe appetizers we begin with are, interestingly enough, a vegetarian take on classic bar food. Three sliders (10.75) are served over a bed of crispy shoe string fries that are light and perfectly seasoned. Standing in for a greasy patty is a slice of avocado decorated with red pepper aioli and Spanish manchego cheese, giving the mini burger an appropriate amount of weight while keeping it light and airy. Even better than the sliders are Chef Jackson’s cross between buffalo wings and traditional blini: the buffalo blue blini (10.50). Pecan crusted Maytag bleu cheese sits atop buckwheat pancakes filled with carrots in a chile glaze. A bite is a perfectly acceptable and significantly healthier substitute for buffalo wings, with an appropriate spicy kick that’s quickly chased with a shot of the cool blue cheese. So far, so good...

When the entrees are put in front of us, I become aware of two things. First, Chef Jackson is an artist. Our appetizers were pretty, and the entrees are absolutely beautiful. It’s well known that a great visual presentation can go a long way to how you perceive the taste, and the kitchen does a wonderful job setting up their plates. Secondly, the portions are enormous. Any concerns I had about leaving this vegetarian eatery hungry were wiped away as soon as I saw the entrees. The wild mushroom risotto (20.75) has so much going on it’s tough to find a place to start. A southwest smokiness inhabits the dish throughout. Earthy and exotic mushrooms, tangy tomatoes and a wonderful streak of pepper give the dish multiple flavor combinations; the real treat is when you can manage to get them all on the fork at the same time. Hiding at the bottom is a buttery, creamy ancho chili broth. I’m impressed.

ThoreauI’m beginning to think cows are overrated, and I haven’t even touched my cubano supper, a dish comprised of plantain empanadas with sunflower seed-chipotle pesto surrounding a gorgeous yellow tomato-guacamole Napoleon sitting on a bed of mango papaya relish (20.75). If that sounds good, it is nothing compared to how it tasted. The flavors were so bright and fresh and worked harmoniously. And to top it off, defying my wildest expectations, I made it halfway through the dish before putting down my fork. I couldn’t eat another bite. Done in by veggies; who’d have thought?

Chef Jackson has a wonderful thing going on at Thoreau, and I was truly impressed. The one shadow in an otherwise bright experience was the overuse of certain ingredients. There was definitely avocado overkill on the menu; if you’ve got an aversion to the fatty fruit you’ll have trouble fitting in. The same goes for curry, a flavor I personally despise and which appears in abundance on the menu.

With that, my first foray into vegetarian cuisine was a resounding success, with a bar that’s been set pretty high. I look forward to trying other vegetarian eateries in the area and am keeping my fingers crossed that they pull it off with the same pizzazz as Thoreau.

Contact David Valiante at davevaliante@gmail.com



1033 Spring Garden St.

Philadelphia, PA 19123

Phone: 215-232-9001



Tue-Thu 4:30PM - 10:00PM
Fri-Sat 4:30PM - 11:00PM