Thursday, August 7, 2008

Comfort Food a Girl Can Feel Good About

Last week I partook in the ritual of New York Restaurant Week. I ate at Spice Market and went home with the sort of bloated belly that allows small girls to pretend they're pregnant, and probably feels just as uncomfortable as actual pregnancy. Although the pull of Restaurant Week is the $35.00 tasting menu, if you drink liberally, you will have quite the bill--and oh I did!

Waking up full and frugal next morning I had to take friends from out of town to dinner. Since I love to be the helpful host I did research on many lovely, healthy, relatively cheap places in Manhattan and Brooklyn. I threw Souen in the mix and left it up to my guests. I am in their debt for having chosen it.

It was not until I arrived at the Soho location that I felt the familiar relief of dining in my spot. In NY there are so many great places that I always feel a pressure to try new things and keep up with all of the amazing options we have. Nonetheless, I never let too much time pass before I return to this gem.

The first time I went to Souen I had sushi, which while good, is not where they shine. I went through a series of visits where I ordered many of the exotic offerings on their menu. Eventually, however, I settled on the macro plate as my favorite dish.

The macro plate is the perfect landscape on a plate, accompanied by the magical carrot dressing. Having a palate that leans towards salty food, I always ask for the gomashio, a combination of salt and sesame seeds. These three elements bring me a gastronomic comfort that would rival any Southerner's affection for fried chicken and collard greens.

At the restaurant's website,, you will find a description of the macrobiotic movement and how it influences their concept and purpose. You'll also find galleries of their delicious food. Both through the food images and their explanation you will see why macrobiotics means to live "comfortably in harmony with nature." It is also supposed to capture the meaning: living a long and large life. Souen, however, does not sacrifice flavor or substance in the process of bringing macrobiotic philosophy to the table. Of course the idea is that by eating balanced meals of unrefined, local, seasonal grains and vegetables we maintain balance with nature, but they also taste amazing here. The macro plate symbolizes this lovely simple fact.

Where to begin in describing my love? A plate comes to the table and it is always a bit different from the last time that you went because the bean changes on a daily rotation. You are, at first, taken by the beauty of all the contrasting colors. White circles bright green kale that underlies a chunk of squash, a pale orange laced with green. You will also see a jewel-shaped hunk of carrot upon the plate. This is by far my favorite domain--vegetables steamed to perfection. Drizzle carrot sauce liberally over these. For me the other portions of the plate play very strong supporting roles.

I like to sprinkle the gomashio over the rice, perhaps a light dash over the vegetables. The beans and the seaweed really don't need it. The rice is brown. It is hearty and filling and I try to eat it sparingly to keep room for all the veggies. The beans are always tender, well seasoned and comforting. Perhaps this is my comfort food because it brings two worlds together for me. The beans and rice of my mother's kitchen with the celebration of vegetables in their simplest state, which I learned to love trough Deborah Madison and her superlative cookbook, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.

I was introduced to Souen by a friend. Over the past year I have brought at least six friends there and I've returned with the original friend at least three more times. It is an establishment that jives with something deep within me. The two locations even capture two strong but different strains within my own personality.

The Soho location appeals to my lazy, lounging meditative persona. The restaurant is never busy and the staff leaves you be while you enjoy the food and the people you are with. The atmosphere is simple and clean. I love a weekend lunch there that will very easily take you into the evening. The light softly fades into twilight through the little glass space that makes up this location.

The Union Square location is usually a twenty to thirty minute wait. When you are seated, you'll notice that there are as many plants as there are patrons. A split-level design affords a raised view of the lovely vine garden that reminds one that one is attuned with nature while eating there. The staff are efficient and friendly, without being chatty. I like the bustling loud atmosphere, which reflects the neighborhood. The hearth-like, less polished feel of this space makes you feel welcome. Although busy, I've never felt rushed out.

If I have perked your interest, I would encourage you to be adventurous with the menu. The prices are quite reasonable, especially if you're not ordering beverages. Their portions are excellent. If you do order sushi though, be aware that you'll get roles that have a good amount of rice--more than my preference. Also, dessert can have a disappointing 'granola' quality. It is not that they are not tasty. However, if you want decadence, Souen is not the place to satisfy this desire, and really what's the point of dessert if it's not decadent?


210 Sixth Ave at Prince St

Union Square
28 East 13th St between University Pl and 5th Ave

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