I was hungrier than most children. A fat thing in frills who ate her heart out: fistfuls of sweet things, fistfuls of salty things-let's be honest, fistfuls of anything. I then became a smugly anorexic prepubescent, and later still a heifer teenager. I am now a seriously troubled adult. Despite this history, I continue to persist in a perverse gourmandism. I have not, however, been untouched by my years of indulgence and restraint. My diets, when I embark on them, are strange and erratic, often based on phases of the moon. I live mainly on rage, voyeurism and crudités. I watch a lot of cooking shows, my hunger thrashing its tail within me. I go to grocery stores in the middle of the night and touch everything. I lean over people's plates and breathe heavily. And when I can't take it any more, I turn out all the lights in my apartment and quietly consume my refrigerator. But sometimes too, God help us all, I dine ...
THE SPIRITE LOUNGE
Price: $40-$60 per person with wine
Smoking: At the bar only
Payment: Visa, Interac, cash
Veronica's Verdict: For a spirit more willing than I ...
I have confessed to being an absolutely starving young woman-indiscriminately, unfortunately, perpetually hungry. But I must also confess that whenever vegetarianism extends its well-meant, wilted Brussels sprout, its adzuki bean, its carob "treat," its spiced tofu cube, I recoil and decline with the most insincere "I simply mustn't." Don't misunderstand. It isn't because I don't care for vegetarian cuisine. That's part of it. A big part. Perhaps the whole. But it's also because what passes for vegetarian cuisine in most establishments is a kind of reading-rainbow-esque buffet of sludgy, sunflower-oil-slicked "goodies" served up by a blonde anemic youth who assures you, repeatedly, that everything is "yummy!"
It isn't their fault, of course, poor creatures. It's entirely mine. You see, I associate vegetarianism-however erroneously-with several other things for which I harbour an inexplicable hatred. Teas that involve philosophies. New Age shops clanging with wind chimes and wistfully dressed women. Wistfully dressed women. Chakras. Aura glasses. Menopause-themed journals. Lilith Fair. Singalongs. Thin people. And last-but definitely, definitely not least-conceptual dining. When I muse about a conceptual vegetarian restaurant, I imagine a man dressed in crystal dangling wheat grass from a fish hook above my head.
But then I'm an open-minded woman. And a forgiving and patient woman too. In fact, I like to think of myself as something of an adventuress. So, finding myself in the fair city of Montreal for a brief working while, I took myself and my equally bleak-minded brother to a haunt all the gals at the office were squawking about: the Spirite Lounge, a conceptual vegetarian restaurant famous for its kooky rules and table d'hôte.
I want to tell you the trip was inspired by my openness and bravery. No, no. I was lured in-lush that I am-by the promise, on the menu, of a sorbet cocktail. Now I do love food. But what I love even more is a gorgeously spiked, fruity drink with an umbrella in it. And maybe a loopy straw. I saw myself sipping this imagined icy ruby concoction, bravely awaiting my grim and meagre feast. And I loved the image it presented: martyress, adventuress, tits-up drunk. After all, I could always go for pizza afterward.
When I muse about a conceptual vegetarian restaurant, I imagine a man dressed in crystal dangling wheat grass from a fish hook above my head.
The concept behind the Spirite Lounge takes a while to explain. And all you get to eat while the waitress explains it are olives. And the olives you get are prunier and saltier than any olives I've ever known. And though I ate them out of a perverse and dark compulsion, I hated them and was made hungrier by the salt. We could not escape the explanation, meted out as we were seated, though we squirmed and sighed like schoolchildren. And I don't think you'll be able to either, as it was recited by the wait staff to every customer who sauntered through those beaded gates, only to hit his or her head on one of the many hanging lamps-all the colours the rainbow, in its wisdom, forgot.
The rules are as follows: At the Spirite Lounge, there is only one menu-one first course, one second, one dessert-that changes every night. So you better like it. And you better eat it all. If you don't finish your dinner, you are fined two dollars and not allowed dessert. And if you don't finish dessert, God help you, you are banned from the Spirite Lounge for life (they even take your picture). The idea behind this, or so they told me, is that the restaurant does not believe in wasting food. And since you choose your portion size (baby, regular or large), you ought not to waste. And if you waste, you ought to pay. It makes sense. Fines paid for wasted food go toward feeding customers who wouldn't otherwise have the means to eat there. Nice of them. Perhaps even more generous, a 20 percent discount is offered to "starving artists and students." So you see, the whole thing is meant to be fun. And good for you. And righteous. All at the same time. Jesus. What more could you or I want?
I wanted a damn sorbet cocktail, for starts. "Very sorry, ma'am. We don't do those cocktails anymore." We were offered, instead, a brand of juice called Feeling. When I got over the shock of this, I ordered a glass of house wine. My brother had a beer. And we leaned against the worn cushions, threw our heads back as only the truly spoiled know how and mourned the loss of the promised fruity beverage. Our expressions must have dimmed further still as our waitress, Julie, a kind woman in kookily patterned pants, rattled off that evening's menu. A New England soup made with coconut milk, white wine, tamari, onions, garlic, celery, coriander, provincial herbs, zucchini, potatoes and, on top of that, apples and walnuts. "For the love of God, will there be bread?" I whimpered. Julie assured me there would be. Then, for the next course, a hop on over to Spain for the Catalan crêpe. (Oh, how we would travel that night!) The crêpe was composed of tomatoes, garlic, celery, eggplant, carrots, beets, coriander, a purée of black beans, fresh thyme, red peppers, artichokes, pears, leeks, red curried lentils and a purée of sweet potatoes with nutmeg. This pièce de résistance, sauced à la forestière, would be accompanied by ginger-sautéed veggies and topped with mini olive-oil fries. All of God's garden was to be accounted for-down to the last sad, little sprout.
Now I will never hesitate to put forth my opinion. But I do suggest you hesitate before basing any decisions on it. So we weren't fond of our meal. That doesn't necessarily mean that you won't adore the place.
"Dear God!" screamed my brother. "I need a cigarette." "There isn't any smoking in the dining area, sir. Only by the bar." "Dear God!" he screamed again. "I can't even smoke in here. You must be happy." I raised my eyebrows. "I was promised a sorbet cocktail and didn't get one. I am hardly happy." We sighed and waited. I kept drinking wine. I didn't want to be sober when I ate my yummy crêpe with beets.
Now I will never hesitate to put forth my opinion. But I do suggest you hesitate before basing any decisions on it. So we weren't fond of our meal. That doesn't necessarily mean that you won't adore the place. In fact, you probably will. The service at the Spirite Lounge is wonderful-everyone is friendly, efficient and accommodating (albeit strict about the rules). The ingredients are diverse, seasonal and fresh, the meals healthy. The price is reasonable and includes all three courses. With its precarious mood lighting, its worn cushions and wobbly tables, the atmosphere does exude a kind of Aladdin's Cave come-hitherness. I suppose I can see why vegans come here to court one another. Indeed, the place was teeming with couples. Lovebirds fondled one another with their eyes as they slurped at New England's goodness. The pale people to my left smiled wanly at each other, soberly sipping their "feelings." Everyone was having a ball. Everyone but our sad selves. To my kinsman and myself, it felt like jail. Jail with beets. I really only went there to get sloshed on something red and slushy. We did eat the food, however, he and I. Well, I did, at any rate. My brother, infinitely more complicated and spoiled than I, only picked at his, fat tears the shape of steaks spilling down his face. But I ate it all. From the thick moss green purée that was the soup to the little Dickensian crusts of black that were the bread to the crêpe that smelled of farm.
Dessert-to which word I always utter a Pavlovian "Yes, God yes"-was a vegan chocolate cake, with strawberry frozen yogourt on top and some kind of maple berry surprise on the side. I ate the crumbly atrocity, shedding tears myself now.
My brother later told me he dreamed of pork chops that night. Platter upon platter of them-plump and cooked to perfection. I dreamed a dreamless sleep, waking to a sunrise the colour of peaches. It made me want a bellini more than air. Later, we went for eggs Benedict at a little place down the way that I know and love. There, the ham is thick and the hollandaise sauce thicker, and the potatoes swim dreamily in their heady ocean of oil. In the bathroom, a disco ball forever turns. We ate quietly, contentedly, gazing out the windows and sipping our overly creamed and sugared coffees. Clinking amber mimosas, we vowed never to speak of the Spirite Lounge again. However, dear reader, if bedding hot, highly principled veggie lovers is your ambition, this is where I'd take them. They'll surely swoon.
Veronica Tartley (Mona Awad) has eaten, shamelessly or barely at all, in nearly every city in the world. She enjoys rain, hurling things against walls and walks on the beach. She lives beautifully in an undisclosed location at the edge of the known universe. There, she weeps her mascara tears, churns butter in the old style and listens to French accordion music.