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Easy Being Green 

Parker's monthly feasts are a vegetarian gourmet's dream.

Chef Andy Strizak's menu consists of whatever fresh ingredients he finds. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Chef Andy Strizak's menu consists of whatever fresh ingredients he finds.
There is something oxymoronic about the notion of "gourmet vegetarian" dining. Once you've nixed the foie gras, the Kobe beef, and the free-range chickens, all that's left is the lettuce, right?

Well, no -- particularly if you're dining at Parker's New American Bistro in Ohio City, where chef de cuisine Andy Strizak lavishes each little naturally grown bean, bud, and berry with the same attention he gives ingredients further up the food chain.

For Strizak and his mentor, chef-restaurateur Parker Bosley, it's not nearly enough to simply pop a handful of industrial-strength veggies into a pot, then onto a plate. Parker's has long taken the lead in promoting locally grown foods, culled in season from a network of area farmers who have pledged to provide safe, natural meats and produce.

That devotion to regional, seasonal foodstuffs has made Parker's a prime destination for fans of fine dining, vegetarians and omnivores alike. In exchange, the bistro's small dinner menu always offers a full complement of meat-based meals, including entrées like roasted leg of lamb, sautéed organic pork loin, and all-natural beef liver from Knox County (northeast of Columbus). But veggie lovers are never snubbed: Look for such upscale offerings as crêpes stuffed with Killbuck Valley mushrooms or baked Capriole goat cheese on a bed of mixed spring lettuces.

The regular dinner menu, however, merely scratches the surface. For in-depth dining, the bistro presents monthly five-course vegetarian feasts. Parker's has hosted them for nearly two years, and local farmers have responded by making sure that something green is almost always in season. For the monthly menu, Strizak merely chooses whatever is freshest and most abundant at the North Union Farmers' Market, then offers it up for the very reasonable price of $35 per person. We signed up for the late May edition, when early season harvests mostly yielded asparagus, greens, and rhubarb, which Strizak finessed into dishes as diverse as peppery cream of cress soup, garnished with a pouf of fresh baby cress, and moist rhubarb pound cake, gilded with a tiny nimbus of real whipped cream.

It's worth emphasizing that, while Strizak's elegant cuisine may be filled with healthful ingredients, it is far removed from the austere realm of health food. Eggs, cheeses, or a splash of cream are certainly not forbidden (thus making much of the menu unsuitable for vegans). And if, in the French culinary tradition, Strizak feels a bit of butter helps express the desired flavor notes, he doesn't hesitate to toss it in.

Without question, though, the combination of pristine ingredients and classical French technique yields dishes of surpassing flavor, with wholesomeness and purity to spare. Consider our starter: a seemingly simple dish of two spears of organic purple asparagus, intensively coddled in the kitchen before being served on a dollop of creamy beurre blanc, with a flourish of chopped chives. If springtime has a flavor, it was right there on that plate; in comparison, the Chilean-grown asparagus from the grocery store tastes like a mere shadow of real food.

Few restaurants bother to make their own yeast breads from scratch nowadays, but Parker's is the exception. Although it's not exclusive to the vegetarian dinners, the bistro's crisp-crusted and sturdy loaves serve as a reminder of why bread was once deemed "the staff of life"; dabbed with a bit of sweet Plugrá butter (a sleek European-style butter with a little less water and slightly higher butter-fat content), the rustic slabs are always a highlight of a meal.

While the asparagus dish channeled sunshine, a warm arugula salad, topped with roasted white potatoes and shards of melted Italian provolone, delivered darker, earthier, more aromatic essences. After the salad came a petite quiche, a mellow, golden confluence of fluffy eggs, a touch of cream, two types of heirloom spinach, and wild Wine Cap mushrooms in a dainty pastry shell.

Like everything else, the quiche seemed to quiver with honest flavor. Still, if we reported that the final course -- a trio of miniature desserts showcasing fresh rhubarb -- didn't steal our heart, we'd be lying. Besides the buttery pound cake (nearly as rich as bread pudding), the sweet thieves included a sharp, juicy rhubarb-ginger granita (shaved ice) and a bite-sized tart filled with almond cream, pastry cream, and a dab of stewed rhubarb on top. What a treat to find this bitter veggie so seductively transformed!

While Strizak handles kitchen duties, Bosley now spends most of his time in the fields, sourcing products, educating growers, and building his network of small, family-run farms. Strizak says the ability to trace the provenance of his ingredients is a large part of his inspiration. "When I consider the time and devotion that it took to grow these products," he says, "I can't help but treat them with the respect that they deserve."

That's a labor of love any food fan can endorse.

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