If the words "plant-based foods" make you uneasy, I have a restaurant recommendation.
Green Bar and Kitchen, opened one year ago in Fort Lauderdale by life and business partners Elena Pezzo and Charles Grippo, serves only vegan and gluten-free foods. Whether or not you've had any experience with this kind of cuisine doesn't matter, because Pezzo and Grippo have created a menu that will appeal to even the most carnivorous eater.
They use the word "burger," for instance, to describe a hearty patty made from brown rice, quinoa, chickpeas, carrots, onion, parsley, sunflower seeds, garlic, tamari, smoked salt, pepper, olive oil, thyme, sage and rosemary. The Smokehouse burger ($12.99) is served with barbecue mayonnaise, caramelized onions and fresh garlic on a gluten-free roll. It is the most satisfying vegan burger I have ever been served.
Because of all the reckless eating I do as a restaurant critic, my meals at home have increasingly been built around vegetables. Forget Meatless Mondays: I sometimes go three or four days without consuming any meat. If that's a new concept, get yourself to Green Bar and Kitchen.
The restaurant makes a nicely spicy coconut Thai soup ($6 cup/$8 bowl) garnished with black sesame seeds that will open up your palate for all the treasures to come. Sweet-potato spread ($7.99), served with flax crackers, carrots and celery sticks, tastes like an Asian-inspired Thanksgiving hors d'oeuvre. The potatoes are so sweet, you'll feel like saving this for dessert.
Coaxing flavor from vegetables is what the best vegan chefs do every day. Roasting the carrots and sweet potatoes in the veggie wrap ($12.99) turns what could have been a bore into a revelation. Along with the roasted elements, there are caramelized onions, zucchini, garlic, arugula and garlic-aioli spread.
Yes, there are salads, but these are overflowing plates of flavor and color. Taco salad ($7.99-$13.99) is a combination of tender greens, olive oil, red-wine vinegar, seasoned taco "meat," diced tomatoes, red onions, shredded lettuce, sun cheese, cheddar cheese, cubed avocado and jalapeno. You can add one of the aforementioned burger patties ($6.50), chick'n strips ($3.50) or a scoop of chick'n salad. This chick'n is made from soy protein, by the way.
This is the kind of restaurant where you watch dishes go by and wish you'd ordered them. Dishes such as Buffalo tempeh ($12.99) on millet and flax bread that's served with Buffalo sauce and dill dressing. Remember what I said about carnivores? Grippo has said his food isn't about hippie-style twigs and leaves.
And then, there's Pezzo, who makes the rounds of her restaurant like a seasoned hospitality professional. She's worked for some big national companies, including the high-priced Equinox gym in New York. In Miami Beach, she built a personal health-coaching practice at the Standard Hotel, owned by Andre Balazs Properties.
So despite the fact that you order from a counter and wait for your food to be delivered, Pezzo has created a culture of service I don't see at many of the finest restaurants in South Florida. Pleasant cashiers wear earbuds to keep in constant contact with the kitchen. We were asked twice if we were enjoying our food. Tables are cleaned by smiling bus staff.
Green Bar sits awkwardly perpendicular to 17th Street, but it's packed throughout lunchtime. The interior is a simple, 50-seat whitewashed duo of rooms with polished concrete floors. The smaller room holds a glass-doored fridge full of bottled beer curated by the folks at the nearby Tap 42 restaurant, where beer is just as important as food. Green Bar also brings in a different keg every time one is emptied. Funky Buddha was on tap last week. Wine, by glass or bottle, is reasonably priced.
The dessert case, placed strategically where you make your order, is full of temptations. You will not miss the dairy or wheat in the brownies ($4.75) or chocolate chip cookies ($3).
The food here is so good, the service so likable, it's no wonder that Green Bar and Kitchen stays crowded every lunchtime.
1075 SE 17th St., behind Waxy O'Connor's, Fort Lauderdale
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday
Reservations: Not accepted
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Beer and wine
Sound level: Can be noisy when full
Outside smoking: No
For kids: Highchairs, boosters, menu
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Free lot