Contrary to popular belief, vegetarian offerings are not limited to solely leafy green salads and some version of tofu.
On Walnut Street near the Newton Highlands T station, the aptly-named Walnut Grille challenges—and surprises—with its globally-influenced vegetarian and vegan fare. The bright earth-inspired green and red decor, relaxing music, and welcoming atmosphere hint at, but does not prepare you, for the culinary adventure to come.
It began as a business venture among friends in early 2013. Walnut Grille’s culinary offerings aim to please vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike with its extensive menu and seasonal offerings. The owners envisioned the Walnut Grille as a unique, healthy, “global vegetarian” option for the Newton community. Newton, to them, was the right location because of the neighborhood’s reputation for health-conscious and family-oriented diners.
“If the vegetarian and vegan menu doesn’t work out, we’ll go for meat,” said Siva Kumar, co-owner and executive chef.
Originally from India, Kumar was inspired by his vegetarian upbringing, culinary training and experience, as well as his travels around the United States. Prior to the Walnut Grille, Kumar co-founded two other ventures—a traditional Indian restaurant and Red Lentil, another vegetarian restaurant in the Greater Boston area.
The Walnut Grille is open daily for lunch and dinner with a different menu—and kids menu—for each meal. Daily and seasonal specialties are listed on a separate menu—in fact, the menu changes three to four times a year so that each visit has an element of surprise. As a farm-to-table establishment, seasonal vegetables from local farms are delivered frequently throughout the spring, summer, and fall. This fall, the specials feature squash, root vegetables, pumpkins, and seeds. Diners find this restaurant as a “great alternative” and choose to come here to “try something new” or when they want something “healthy and fresh.”
Fitting of its suburban setting, brunch is only offered on the weekends. Savory selections like soups, salads, gluten-free omelets, sandwiches, and burgers are offered alongside vegan pancakes, waffles, and smoothies. Although the Walnut Grille is consistently busy, brunch and dinner Friday through Sundays are the busiest times.
In addition to being one of the few healthy vegetarian places in the area, the Walnut Grille combines locally-sourced ingredients and fresh produce with a global flair. It is hard to categorize the food since each dish has a unique flavor and presentation. Kumar acknowledges that although some menu items are inspired by his Indian background, there are also influences from Italy, China, Thailand, and Latin America.
Walnut Grille’s creativity with its innovative global vegetarian menu offerings and dedication to organic and locally-sourced ingredients appeal to families, professionals, and students. While I am not a vegetarian (and very far from being a vegan), the Walnut Grille most definitely challenged my tastebuds. Out-of-the-box menu items like Drums of Heaven vegetable lollipops, Indian-vegan fusion tandoori tofu, and the farm-fresh Flu Fighter juice also surprised me.
Gobi Manchurian, one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, pleases the palate with its not-too-sweet and just-spicy-enough tomato sauce that complements the crispy texture of the cauliflower florets on a bed of arugula and carrot. Kumar recreates this popular vegetarian Indian dish with chickpea flour to make it gluten-free.
Even classics like beef stroganoff are reimagined. Last Friday’s lunch special was a vegan vegetable and seitan stroganoff. Seitan, Kumar said, is a meat substitute made from wheat. Since ingredients and meat substitutes like seitan are more widely available here in the United States, it is easier to create vegetarian and vegan versions of meat dishes like stroganoff. In lieu of beef, pan-seared seitan is used in the traditional creamy mushroom sauce. The egg noodles are replaced with a potato mash, which is on the side, as opposed to being served with the sauce. With the taste and aroma similar to a classic beef stroganoff, Kumar’s deconstructed seitan and potato mash interpretation is modern and one of a kind.
The falafel wrap is served with freshly-made hand-cut sweet potato fries in an individual fryer. Even though the crisp and flavorful wrap left me feeling healthier, the sweet potato fries dominated this dish. To achieve its perfect crispy and crunchy texture, these fries are lightly salted and seasoned before they are cooked in the container they’re served in. Paired with barbecue sauce, the sweet potato fries add a sweet and tangy flavor to the fresh and lightly seasoned quinoa tabbouleh, greens, hummus, and cut tomatoes. Meanwhile, the individual wire frying basket adds a modern and trendy element to the presentation.
If the vegetarian and vegan menu doesn’t work out, we’ll go for meat. Siva Kumar
To keep the menu up-to-date, Kumar “eats out, reads magazines.” Delicious, trendy, and affordably-priced, all the recipes are homemade and tested by both the staff and the regulars. The friendly and diverse staff is from over 10 different countries including Portugal, Romania, and Guatemala. The family-friendly atmosphere is accompanied by a full bar stocked with organic wines and beers from local distributors. Vegan ice cream from FoMu, local teas and coffees, and homemade sangria and organic cocktails also grace the menu. Catering for small-scale parties and office gatherings is also available.
Their vegan cakes are free of dairy, gelatin, and eggs are available on-site and by special order. The desserts, much like the appetizer and entrees, surprised my tastebuds. Made with cornstarch and rice flour, these gluten-free desserts are not noticeably different. What appeared to be a simple vanilla cake with a strawberry on top was revealed to be a delightfully light yet savory mango vanilla coconut cake. The chocolate cake was not too overbearing and unusually paired with a green grape. The mint and dark chocolate swirl garnish completed the sophisticated look.
Nearing four years since its inception, the Walnut Grille continues to deliver on its promise of delicious healthy food, and is considering expanding in the near future. What is the secret to the Walnut Grille’s success?
Kumar’s response is simple: “Buy good ingredients, buy local produce.”
Featured Image by Amelie Trieu / Heights Editor