Most restaurants have some vegetarian offerings, and some even cater to strict vegans, but those that specialize in serving that population are uncommon here. Ithaca has one on every corner, but Rochester seems to support, basically, one at a time.
Twenty years ago it was Jazzberry's, with it's creative and inconsistent food. A dozen years ago, Slice of Life Café came along. Slice was strict in its vegetarianism, and serious about its politics. Most importantly, Bobi Sherwood made great food there.
Slice closed in 2002, but 2003 saw two (!) vegetarian restaurants open. Meg Davis' Atomic Eggplant, with huge portions and funky atmosphere, was an instant hit. And Stephanie Frontuto opened Skippy's in the Slice space. Skippy's carried much of Slice's menu forward, even naming some items for the Slice ladies ("The Marge," the tempeh-based Reuben sandwich, was named for Marge Keller). Frontuto remodeled, stayed vegetarian, and kept the quality high.
Davis burned out and closed the Eggplant last year, and on April 22, Skippy's closed its doors, with Frontuto moving on to a new phase in her life. Where does that leave local vegetarians? Well, it's always been possible for vegetarians to eat at ethnic restaurants. The India House's Vegetarian Café is even dedicated to the cause. Many Mediterranean and Asian restaurants offer vegetarian menus, too.
Fortunately, one door closes and another opens, and Chris Miller, along with his twin brother, Doug, has just opened Organic Alley. Miller is a seeker whose life path went from "crazy teen" to college wrestler, and now to a yogic lifestyle. After a degree in business and economics, he tried the corporate life, but it left a spiritual hole. After years of bouncing through various jobs, the opportunity came up to start this business.
Organic Alley is a small general store and a yoga studio in addition to a café. All the elements arise out of Miller's interest in yoga. You can practice yoga, and buy and eat foods that help maintain your balance all in one place. "It's about nonviolence to animals," Miller says, quickly adding, "and nonviolence to human beings as well." The store reminds me of the Abundance Market, but on a smaller scale. Touring the shop, you get the feeling Miller can close his eyes and tell you about every individual product.
The space, formerly Towpath Bike Shop, was originally an 1860s barn that the Millers extensively remodeled, for both aesthetic and Health Department reasons. For one side of the studio they've retained the building's original, stunning stone wall.
The café serves predominantly raw and vegetarian foods, though not strictly ("I really like my soups," Miller says). I enjoyed two wraps. The Sun Burger ($6.95) is nut-based, vegan, with lots of crisp romaine and "goddess drizzle." It was delicious and felt like a meal. The Greek Odyssey featured walnuts, apple, goat cheese, arugula, and feta ($6.45). It's a winning combination, though I'd prefer local apples (that's a political, not an aesthetic, concern). All wraps came with carrot sticks and Organic Alley's own dried banana chips.
Serving exclusively organic food drives the café prices up a bit. But if you care about where your food comes from, you'll pay more. Seven bucks for a packed wrap is a decent deal, but $4.50 for a bowl of soup and $6.25 for fresh-squeezed juices smarts. Mushroom barley soup had beautiful 'shrooms, though a bit too much salt. One creative juice had apple, parsley, cilantro and pineapple; it was intense.
Organic Alley also serves breakfast seven days a week. "Peace Waffles" and "Hippie French Toast" both come with real maple syrup for $5.95. You can also get granola mixed with several options, as well as organic cereals. The organic, fair-trade coffee comes in various blends as well as from single origins (Bolivian had more body than most South American coffees).
The café is zoned only for take out, but there are a few small tables (which are for sale), and the atmosphere is inviting. The staff is friendly, if sometimes confused about menu items and prices (this will get worked out). I went to have a last Marge at Skippy's before it closed, and I'll miss those dearly. But Chris Miller has a plan for growth, and Organic Alley is certainly filling a need.
Organic Alley, 7 Schoen Place, 264-9150. Hours: Daily, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 11 p.m.
Chefs will do cooking demonstrations at 9, 10 and 11 a.m. in front of the Public Market Office Saturdays through October. There will be no samples, but there will be recipes and time for questions. This Saturday, Kenneth Moran of the Triphammer Grill will open at 9 a.m., followed by Dan Eaton of Cooking at Home on R-News, and Rosita Caridi-Miller of Cibi Deliziosi in Mendon.
--- Michael Warren Thomas of www.SavorLife.com.