Restaurant review: Alana’s Vegetarian Fridays

From the April 4, 2012 edition

This just in from the “when cliches merrily come true” department: Now I can have my cake and eat it, too. Figuratively, I mean eating meat-free meals so hearty, brash and dynamic that I’ll never feel like I’m “settling” for something in an attempt to be “virtuous” (for me that’d be a stretch anyways). Literally, I’m talking about ripping through a savory piquillo pepper and almond goat cheese cheesecake — one of many creative and globe-spanning selections from a recent Friday night special vegetarian menu at Alana’s.

The reigning queen of local vegetables has always catered to herbivores (of both the part-time and full-time varieties), but with her inspired newish Friday night routine — in which a full vegan/vegetarian menu is offered alongside the regular menu — she has really (to quote Emeril Lagasse, one of her old mentors) “kicked it up a notch.”

Put simply, on Fridays, Alana’s becomes the most diverse and best vegetarian restaurant in Columbus. Like all of the best restaurants, Alana’s menus are written daily, so availability of the following items is not assured. Having said that, I can guarantee one timely vegan selection will be on hand: The Spring Tonic cocktail ($9). Fizzy and citrusy and spiked with vodka (that’s vegan, right?) plus refreshing rhubarb bitters, consider it to be like a grown-up Sprite.

Soups are always special here, too. Similar to the food in general, they daringly steer you — through unexpected detours — to a place that can nonetheless taste familiar. Recently I enjoyed an Indianish Carrot Korma, a Latinish “Speedball Black Bean” with a touch of coffee and a tangy and glorious lima bean potage with a whisper of lavender that could convert haters of both lima beans and lavender.

Also making the rounds lately is an attractive Mediterranean platter ($15). Huge and built for sharing, it breathes fresh life into that Greek and Middle Eastern staple — the dip sampler. Served with pita chips and lavash, it comes with killer riffs on melitzanosalata, spanakopita (filling), tapenade (“healthed up” with spelt) and a mild hummus.

Hummus reappeared in two other outstanding guises. One was a literally beautiful — and rich, and sweet, and spicy — version teasingly called “high tech” black bean hummus made with pineapple and red pepper and scooped into an avocado; the other, inspired by a visit to Georgia, is a deeply nutty one fortified with boiled peanuts (a must!).

Those boiled peanuts resurfaced — and ostensibly disparate cultures again harmoniously merged — in a powerhouse entree that was a veritable vegan smorgasbord no carnivore could resist the alluring charms of. The nuts were mixed with black-eyed peas in a kinda brilliant succotash that served as the earthy sauce for cubes of spicily crusted blackened tofu plus great braised mustard greens that’ll make you question their widely perceived need for pork. Providing ballast and focus for the soaring flavors and textures was a coarse and compact cake of white polenta. This is the kind of spectacular dish for which Alana is justifiably famous.

But so was an almost otherworldly-looking, wine-kissed pasta with heavenly Italian flavors (farro pizzichi with caramelized ramps, spinach, baby artichokes and grilled vidalias) and a nudging (and mammoth!) risotto hybridized with intensely Mexican accents (caramelized butternut and sheepnose pepper “enchilada risotto” with toasted pepitas).

Which brings us back to that goat cheese cheesecake — which actually wasn’t very goaty. But, crunchy with nuts and with a lush richness cut by diced fruity peppers, it was a knockout either as an appetizer or as a finishing cheese course.