TO FOOD SNOBS LIKE ME, the word "vegan" rings as a kind of insult: a caricature of pinched, disapproving self-righteousness. (In truth, the term has always sounded to me like some species out of Star Trek—the noble inhabitants of planet Veeg.) I'm not proud of this. I know a few brave vegans, and they go quietly about their business in their eggless, dairyless, meatless world without a shred of disdain for me and my carnage. Cafe Ambrosia
2501 Fairview E, 325-7111 Lunch Tue-Fri 11am-2pm, dinner Tue-Sun 5-10pm, brunch Sun 10am-2pm AE, MC, V; beer and wine Even the people at Caf頁mbrosia are sheepish about the distinction. "Yes, we are technically vegan," our waiter sighed sadly. "But we try to be quiet about it." They are also low-fat, low-cholesterol, and almost 95 percent organic, more words that spell doom for restaurants, which are, after all, in the business of providing enjoyment. Can a restaurant this pious provide anything resembling enjoyment? We and our low expectations came to find out. The place itself, though charmingly appointed in white linens and candlelight, is another unfortunate harbinger: It's the site of the old Azteca on the east shore of Lake Union at the foot of Roanoke that has buried more than a few well-intentioned enterprises. (Caf頁mbrosia's sign, no more than a hanging banner, struck us as a portent of temporariness.) The interior is vast, sprawling along the lakeshore, with views aplenty. When we visited, they were wisely just seating the few of us in the bar. The menu is refreshingly concise—three salads, three apps, a soup, and four entr饳—and it is where things began looking up. Salads were fully sensational across the board. A salad of baby lettuces with sliced pear and caramelized spiced pecans ($7.25) was scattered with brilliant pomegranate seeds and dressed in a sweet fruit vinaigrette—a harmonious interplay of contrasts. A warm spinach salad ($7.50) offered a heap of the greens glistening in a throaty balsamic dressing, along with grapes, walnuts, saut饤 red onions, and warmly woodsy crimini mushrooms. No deprivation for the vegan munching off this plate; the flavors here were full-bodied, even lush. The Ambrosia Caesar salad ($6.95), which would have to make do without the egg, cheese, or anchovies, was grand: spears of crunchy romaine tossed with beet rods, whole grain croutons, kalamatas (a surprisingly suitable understudy for the anchovies), and (cool surprise) flecks of toasted nori. The creamy dressing was admirably Caesarlike—in all, a noble imitation. Appetizers were likewise impressive. Creamy polenta ($7.25) was creamy, go figure, and topped with fistfuls of saut饤 mushrooms and frizzled leeks. Spring rolls ($7.50) were stuffed with a tasty filling of cabbage, carrots, and shiitakes, then baked instead of fried—a preparation that removed that sheen of oil but sacrificed no flavor in the process. A moat of perky sweet-and-sour sauce surrounded the rolls, which were served over a ring of juicy grilled pineapple—just a terrific combination. Weirdest was the Mediterranean sushi plate ($6.95): wrinkly little tofu cups stuffed with rice and crowned with a perky onion and tomato salsa. Although I'm not quite sure how these qualified as Mediterranean—or sushi, for that matter—they were delicious, satisfying, lively, and beautiful. Not only can chef/owner Francis Janes design a recipe, but he can design it on the plate, employing a true artist's eye. A bowl of root vegetable soup ($6) tasted earthy and wonderful and came looking like a party: dollops of red pepper coulis, drizzles of truffle oil, crushed thyme leaves, and bits of roasted root vegetable here and there. Vegan or not, there is nothing about Janes' food to leave one feeling deprived. ENTREES WEREN'T as consistent. Grilled vegetable kebabs ($15.95)—skewers of mustard-marinated and grilled cherry tomatoes, purple and gold potatoes, and green peppers over coconut curry lentil dal and a wild and brown rice pilaf—were dandy in the first few bites but relentless in the long term. Plus, the potatoes were mushy. Grilled polenta triangles stacked over greens and beans ($15.50)—Tuscan whites and edamames, to name two—were intriguing, with a nice vanilla backbeat, but dry. Janes showed his stuff best on the two other entr饳. Mediterranean Napolean ($18.50) was a tower of sweet eggplant ratatouille over pesto rice and sweet tomato sauce, topped with a velvety rich Tuscan bean p and a jaunty cap of phyllo dough. What a dish! Better yet was a plate of steamed, caramel-sweet carnival squash served with roasted mushrooms with adzuki beans and wilted greens ($18.50). A stunning port reduction sauce deepened the plate, while sliced sunchokes and candied walnuts leavened it. Mushy fingerling potatoes sounded the only off note in a dish that tasted as good as, well, meat. Oops, there goes that pesky bias again. But let the fact that I left Caf頁mbrosia feeling fat and happy (and blessedly without that well-buttered feeling I often get in restaurants) speak for itself. The only notes of deprivation are sounded on the dessert menu, which offers things (like millett-firmed "Teasecake") best left unsampled, and in the company, which on my visits was less than sparse. So who knows where Caf頁mbrosia may be a year from now? It may, alas, have to relocate to planet Veeg. But I sure hope chef Janes stays behind. He's got folks to convert right here and the stuff to do it.