Dining

Food: Karma Charms Carnivore

Rest assured, meat-eaters, Northampton's new vegan restaurant won't bite--and you won't leave hungry.

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Thursday, September 29, 2011
Photo By Mark Roessler
The Southwest Buckwheat Napoleon

Wedged between Spoleto and Amanouz Cafe on Main Street in Northampton, a new restaurant has been working hard to take root this summer. Perhaps because it doesn't fit easily into Northampton's typical restaurant categories—no hamburgers, pizza or sushi are offered—some omnivores, like myself, have eyed the new storefront with suspicion.

Some people I've spoken to haven't even been sure that a place with a name like Karma really is a restaurant. Others, only slightly more in the know, have been happy to spread rumors and share hearsay.

"They only sell vegetables. No meat," I've heard it said. "It's all raw. Nothing's cooked."

A glance inside the front window had revealed a bar behind which was a set of giant, colorful chalkboards presenting an elaborate menu of teas and elixirs. This was unfamiliar territory. Not knowing anyone who was willing to try Karma first, I kept my distance. If I wanted raw veggies, I'd make a salad with the weekly farm share.

Then one day I woke up and thought, just for once, I'm not going to let my ignorance guide my decisions. Even though I'd be going alone, I decided I'd try Karma for lunch.

At the former Vermont Country Deli location, the owners of Karma have transformed the cliched rustic interior into something more colorful and comfortable. The drink bar dominates one wall, but there's seating in the well-lit front of the restaurant as well as in a darker, more intimate back nook. I took a seat at the bar in the window facing Main Street.

"First time here?" the waitperson asked, but I got the sense that she was just being polite. My cover already blown, I nodded. She handed me a drink menu, said something more about the tonics and elixirs, then, thankfully, gave me another menu that listed the food. "It's all vegan and soy-free," she added as she left to give me time to consider.

The menu was as expansive, varied and inviting as any I'd seen in town, and in all categories (soups, salads, appetizers, sandwiches, entrees and desserts) it was difficult to choose between the different succulent-sounding dishes. Instead of icons identifying vegetarian or spicy fare, each dish was coded as either being gluten-free, nut-free or raw. Soups and sandwiches were often cooked, but most other items were, indeed, raw. Most dishes came in small or large portions.

I had a large bowl of the mushroom bisque, which was the day's special, and a small portion of the Southwest Buckwheat Napolean [sic].

The soup was thick with mushrooms and something that was apparently not cream, and it was delicious. As it began to rain outside, the warm sprinkling of pepper made a perfect match to the earthy fungal flavors of the soup.

The Napolean was alternating layers of spiced butternut between spinach-flax-buckwheat crisps and chili-walnut pesto. On the side was a zucchini oregano salad. The luscious mix of the pesto's zesty oils with the sweet squash flavor of the butternut was something well worth lingering over, but the thing that won my interest was the architecture of the food before me.

Rather than sliced cubes or wedges, the zucchini in my salad was cut in crazy, round spaghetti spirals which held the dressing better and seemed somehow more appetizing.

Instead of what I'd expected for lunch from a vegan-friendly restaurant—a clump of chopped vegetables lounging on a bed of greens in a bowl—a small, well-built edifice sat before me on my plate, covered in a crispy garnish and oozing delectable sauces. The raw materials weren't just chunked up into bite-size pieces, but sliced into fine patterns and shapes suitable for sturdy construction. With no melted cheese or cooked egg to rely on for stability or cohesion, to build their aesthetically pleasing dishes, these vegan chefs have mastered working with the very textures and strengths of the uncooked vegetables themselves.

With vegetables in the lead roles, not just playing the part of a sidekick garnish, Karma serves up the Valley's produce in some of the most inventive, surprising and delicious ways I've seen. I'm still not certain about the teas and elixirs, but I'm planning on going back and finding out.

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