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Cheap Eats

Red Lentil is a savory haven for vegans

(Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Sheryl Julian
Globe Staff / November 25, 2009

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When their food arrives, diners here sit and stare at their plates, which are colorful, architectural, and beautiful. Nirvana delight ($13), grilled tofu marinated in tandoori spices, comes as two thick triangles leaning on a pedestal of quinoa salad with lush spinach, beet relish, and a cucumber-yogurt sauce. The aromatic, tender bean curd and its crisp edges are slightly spicy, and the grain salad is flecked with the tiniest pieces of bell and hot peppers, yellow squash, and zucchini. Spinach seems to have been cooked just until the leaves sigh on the plate.

Red Lentil is an unusual place. Chef and owner Pankaj Pradhan was raised in New Delhi and is vegetarian; he’s added vegan and gluten-free choices to the menu. All the grains and many ingredients are organic. In the 2 1/2 months since Pradhan opened this bright storefront, many of the 36 seats are taken most nights. The wait staff is welcoming and efficient.

The most popular appetizer on the menu is gobi Manchurian ($7), spicy deep-fried cauliflower tossed with sweet and hot peppers in tomato sauce. Plump edamame with sea salt ($5) are terrific; they’ve come right from the heat to the table. Beet and sweet potato latkes ($5.50), mixed with dates and Granny Smith apples, are not as crisp as latkes usually are, but very interesting - dark red, slightly chewy, and intensely earthy.

A plate-size Mexican pizza ($11) comes on a grilled crust, topped with queso fresco, black beans, avocado, mango, and corn. Lots of texture here without enough salt or zing. The clever 14-year-old at our table tops his pie with spicy salsa that comes with another dish. Perfect!

Thick slices of millet loaf ($12) are stacked on the plate with a melange of vegetables mixed with tempeh, served with a carrot bechamel sauce. Plump and crisp sweet potato quesadilla ($8) is stuffed with the soft orange root, grilled asparagus, and roasted tomatoes.

Among the homemade drinks is a glass of sparkling water with ginger and lemon juice ($4.50 and $5.50), a refreshing glass my husband decides needs a shot of gin. He’ll never get that, but this good food is missing cold beer. “I hope someday Watertown will give me beer and wine license,’’ says the chef.

If you like buttery, creamy desserts, you probably won’t take to chocolate cake or cheesecake made with soy margarine and tofutti cream cheese. Though other patrons seem to.

Pradhan’s savory food is made with extraordinary care. It’s such a small place, you have to wonder if he can make it. “I’m not here to become Bill Gates,’’ says the chef. “I want people to be happy.’’

Judging from the early crowds, they already are.

RED LENTIL

600 Mount Auburn St., Watertown, 617-972-9188, www.theredlentil.com. All major cards, fully accessible.

Prices Appetizers, sandwiches, wraps $5-$11; entrees $8-$13.50; desserts $5.

Hours Mon-Thurs 11 a.m.- 9:30 p.m.; Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun brunch 9 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner 5-9:30 p.m.

Liquor None.

May we suggest Gobi Manchurian, edamame, Nirvana delight (pictured), millet loaf, sweet potato quesadilla.

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