The popular Red Lentil Vegetarian & Vegan Restaurant in Watertown has a crowd outside every weekend, day and night. It’s been like that pretty much since it opened in 2009. Last summer, the restaurant closed for six weeks for a renovation and the result is a place with a few more tables and one that seems to be environmentally friendly: bamboo flooring and wall paneling, the paneling curving up and over several tables, with hanging pendants, so it feels like a private enclosure, and blond-wood and metal chairs, very IKEA-like, flanking dark-wood barnboard tables.
Chef and owner Pankaj Pradhan, raised in New Delhi, is vegetarian and on his menu he tags everything with all the concerns customers have right now: whether a dish is soy-free (SF), contains nuts (CN), gluten-free (GF), or vegan (V). As such, some are offered with regular or vegan cheese (one night on a particular dish I ask for “real cheese” and the waitress tells me “both are real”), and there’s plenty of seitan, tempeh, and tofu.
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Pradhan intended to roll out a new menu with the revamp but it’s pretty much the same one he’s been doing all along, which is to say a mash-up of his Indian specialties, some Middle Eastern dishes, Spanish, Italian, Mexican, and old-fashioned hippie.
Everything comes out of the kitchen surprisingly quickly and very hot, so a special of pakora ($7.50), deep-fried clusters of shredded vegetables, is spot-on and deliciously crisp. Sweet potato quesadilla ($9.50) with grilled asparagus, roasted tomatoes, spinach, and Jack cheese is also terrific (but why asparagus in October?), the tortilla crisp, the cheese melty, and vegetables adding plenty of flavor.
Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff
The signature bowl of red lentil soup ($4.50 and $5.50), golden with spices, is nourishing, but could use more seasoning. Gobi Manchurian ($9), deep-fried cauliflower florets coated with chickpea flour, served with big pieces of red and green bell peppers and onions, is one of the menu stars.
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Many main courses are too large for one person and have a bigger-is-better Cheesecake Factory quality. That’s not to say that butternut polenta ($14.99), a massive presentation, isn’t delightful for something that is GF, SF, and V. Oyster mushrooms and sunflower seed pesto are intriguing in the dish, but it’s garnished with more asparagus (though crisp and bright).
A millet loaf ($14.99) with spiced tempeh, marjoram pesto, ratatouille, and a carrot bechamel screams “Moosewood update” (V); it’s satisfying with a nice sauce.
Much of the food looks beautiful, but suffers from underseasoning. Thai peanut-noodle salad ($9.50) with soba noodles, should be more robust. Roasted beets with glazed walnuts and arugula ($9.50) need a boost. Beet-potato latkes ($8) with their red shreds are delightfully bright but soggy and lackluster.
All desserts here are V, and made on the premises. Remove all the things that make a confection moist and it’s a challenge for the baker. The best is carrot cake. On two visits cake slices are frozen in the middle. Pradhan says a small place like his cannot bake daily, so it freezes cakes and pulls them out as needed.
The chef has taken over the space that was Grappa restaurant, on a side street in Watertown, next to Target, and he intends to offer an entirely vegan menu for breakfast and lunch only, with space for private parties at night. He hopes to open in November with a menu all tagged V.
RED LENTIL VEGETARIAN & VEGAN RESTAURANT
600 Mt. Auburn St., Watertown,
All major credit cards. One step in front; restroom wheelchair accessible.
Prices Soup, appetizers, salads $4.50-$9.50. Main courses $9.50-$16. Desserts $6.50.
Hours Sun 9 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9:30 p.m., Mon-Thu 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Fri 11 a.m.-
10 p.m., Sat 9 a.m.-10 p.m.
Liquor Wine and beer
What to order Red lentil soup, gobi Manchurian (cauliflower), butternut polenta, millet loaf, carrot cake.
Sheryl Julian can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @sheryljulian.