Some vegetarians cringe at the description of portobello mushrooms as "meaty." Many wearily accept that a waiter's promise to have the chef prepare a meatless special inevitably yields a riff on pasta primavera. For these diners, Café Bamboo is a long awaited alternative.
Chef Aiji Baste and co-owner Danny Marks opened the restaurant in January with a completely meatless — and largely vegan — menu. The kitchen mixes dishes that are vegetarian like pasta with eggplant and dishes where textured and flavored soy and wheat products stand in for chicken or beef.
The city does not have a great track record of supporting meatless restaurants, but Café Bamboo brings a different approach that may resonate better with vegetarians seeking some semblance of regional flavor. That's because Baste's cooking draws from Southern and Creole styles reinterpreted for vegetarian diners. Dishes are listed as chicken, beef and sausage with the explicit advisory that they are meatless.
The best candidate for omnivorous crossover appeal is called soul chicken, an imitation of fried chicken cutlets made with soy gluten. The main advantage is texture. First comes the familiar crunch of fried crust, then a thin stringiness giving way to squish and, half a moment later, with just a slightly awkward delay, a chicken flavor that registers more in the nose than on the tongue. Without the fried shell, the grilled bourbon chicken is a bit gummy and tastes more like tofu drenched in sweet, thick barbecue sauce. The skewered strips of wheat gluten imitating beef kebabs are crunchy on the outside like overdone steak, and even seemed to have bits of fat on them, which is not fat but softer and more chewy spots.
Perhaps vegetarians seeking variety will appreciate these options more than I, but my favorite dishes at Café Bamboo used tofu rather than mock meat. Best of all was the mafe, a traditional West African staple dish. Bamboo makes the spicy stew with tofu cubes, ground peanuts, tomato and cabbage and serves it over brown rice. A rice bowl dish identified as "Creole Sauce" uses green peppers and tomatoes in a dish approximating shrimp Creole without seafood. Sweet and spicy coconut-flavored tofu wrapped with a mix of spinach and yellow and red peppers had a refreshingly clean crunch.
Café Bamboo is in the colorful brick townhouse that also is home to the Dragon's Den nightclub, which still books bands to perform in the restaurant's dining room after 10 p.m. That's when Bamboo switches to a shorter, though still vegetarian, menu of bar snacks ordered directly from the kitchen window.
There are some problems with this arrangement, which show up most odiously in restrooms bearing the scuzz one expects at certain bars but which is unsettling in a restaurant. Most indoor tables are tiny, and when the weather is cooperative, the best seats are in the courtyard, surrounded by high, leafy walls rising to views of Marigny rooftops.
Waiters sometimes claim their mock meat dishes taste so convincingly like the real article that omnivores can't believe they not eating meat. While this was not my experience, the restaurant concept itself is a genuine alternative for vegetarians, those trying to eat less meat and the simply curious.