116 N Aurora St, Ithaca, NY 14850
Web: Just a Taste Wine and Tapas Bar
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Famous Ithaca Spanish Tapas Vegetarian
"Though we went light on our order, this was the single best meal we ate in Ithaca, and certainly one of the best Tapas experiences we've had in the U.S. or abroad."
We have fond memories of Ithaca, New York. Cloistered in the central part of the state, 150 miles to the East of Buffalo, the city is quaint - not rural but not quite suburban - and known for Cornell University, Ithaca College, and the surrounding community that is only quiet during the months when school is out of session. If you've ever lived there, stayed there, or just read up on Ithaca, you might also know that it was once known for the best Thai food in New York State, and is still home to the Moosewood Cafe, a vegetarian cafe that has been described as one of the most influential restaurants in America. When we returned to Ithaca this week after a six-year absence, we hit many of our old favorite places; they're highlighted in a three-part series on Ithaca Chow.
Moosewood Restaurant, 215 N. Cayuga Street, Ithaca, NY: When we think of Moosewood, we think "hippie heaven," a place where granola-loving servers might scoff at you for even thinking to order a Pepsi to wash down your couscous and lentil. While that's true, Moosewood is probably Ithaca's most famous restaurant, known elsewhere in the country for 11 vegetarian cookbooks that have inspired healthy, meatless dining from coast to coast.
Dining here is substantially unpredictable. Half of the menu - the entrees, soups, and sandwiches - changes every day, while the other half, simple appetizers, salads, and kids' meals, stays the same. You can find sample menus on Moosewood's web site. We went on a Saturday after seeing some good options on the preceding day's menu, but found ourselves disappointed with the options, and consequently ate only a light meal here. Generally, the prices struck us as reasonable: a Roasted Red Pepper Hummus Pita ($3.50 half, $5.50 whole) arrived gushing with orange, pepper-enhanced hummus, with a few lettuce leaves and a slice or two of tomato inside. Half was enough; every bite caused the hummus to overflow from the sides, Sloppy Joe-style. Minus, of course, the meat and the zest; this Pita was pleasant and mild, not earth-shattering.
Our other order, the Italian Stew ($8.25), was a large but shallow bowl that seemed like a liquified pizza: mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers basil, oregano, and wine, plus eggplant, carrots, and potatoes, topped with parmesan cheese and served with salad and multigrain bread. After six or seven spoonfuls, the Stew was gone - too quickly, we thought, but delicious - and the salad was basic except for a very tasty avocado citrus dressing. Moosewood's bread, good and hearty, would have been even better had there been Stew left to soak it up.
We also tried Moosewood's ginger, citrus, and honey tea, which struck us as pleasantly flavored but not quite sweet enough, and a bottle of Ithaca Soda's Ginger Beer. It was the first ginger beer we've seen that's completely clear - no tint of yellow - and tasted excellent, with just enough ginger to flavor without choking the sinuses.
Overall, we liked Moosewood as an actual restaurant, and were generally pleased with our food, but even with a former vegetarian at the table didn't feel enthusiastic enough about the menu options to dive deeper. With only six entrees to pick from, differing every day, we wouldn't rely on Moosewood for a full meal, but it was a nice place to have a snack.
Just a Taste: It was one of our favorite restaurants in Ithaca six years ago, and Just a Taste remains just as superb today. Now only serving dinner, this Tapas bar - a place to come for small dishes, the Spanish equivalent of dim sum - offers a daily changing menu that unlike Moosewood's has a fair degree of predictability, with items that were over 75% the same as the ones shown on its web site sample menu. Between word of mouth and repeat clientele, we found a line outside of Just a Taste before it opened at 5:30pm; by 6:15, the place was filled save for one small table.
After sitting down, it didn't take long for us to start enjoying four of the 33 Tapas dishes that were on offer that night: the first three came out at once. A common dish, warm Brie served with Crostini ($6), included a generous chunk of wonderfully cooked and melted cheese, initially covered by four crunchy slices of toasted, buttery bread, and two slices of soft, sweet cantaloupe. It, like the other dishes, was described by one of us as a "10/10."
Representing the seafood category of the menu, from which 8 of the 33 Tapas are drawn, was a plate of sauteed spicy shrimp with tomato, onion, and Jalapeno peppers, mixed with lime and cilantro ($6.25). Perfectly cooked, the shrimp were tender and moist, dripping with the slightly spicy sauce, and softer tomatoes, onions and peppers; the only change we would have made would be to double the portion. For $12.50, the size of the "Racion" portion, that's an option.
Another sauteed dish, the White and Portabella Mushrooms with Garlic and Thyme ($5.50), was equally superb, with each of the sliced mushrooms inside the dish cooked to perfection - soft, but not without a little chewiness - and the thin sauce, with wine, a little oil, and just enough garlic, good enough to keep us fishing for little mushroom scraps. The only slight disappointment: the Portabella received second billing, and was lightly represented relative to the more common white mushrooms. We would gladly have eaten more.
Our favorite Just a Taste dish? Something so simple that it's at the top of every night's menu: the Mixed Spiced Nuts ($3.25/$6.50). We ordered the larger portion, recalling that we'd loved these candied, salted, and peppered almonds, cashews, and peanuts so much that we never felt sated with the smaller size; even with the bigger dish, we could have had twice as many. With only the slightest hint of sweetness, these nuts could easily be as popular here as their more common honey- or cinnamon-glazed brethren, if only more people knew the recipe.
We agreed after our meal at Just a Taste: though we went light on our order for reasons to be explained in another part of Ithaca Chow, this was the single best meal we ate in Ithaca, and certainly one of the best Tapas experiences we've had in the U.S. or abroad. Having dined here before, we know that the other items - lamb chops ($9), seared tuna ($8.50), and sauteed chicken breast ($6-$12), to name but a few - are similarly superb, and like virtually all Tapas restaurants, Just a Taste also offers a wide variety of wines: we enjoyed a charming Sangria ($4) with our meal. If we had the night to do over again, we'd have lingered longer at Just a Taste, and not made our next visit of the night. More on that in Part 2.