By Kathryn Matthews
After a recent meal at Luna 61, a 17-year-old eclectic vegetarian restaurant in Tivoli, New York, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that husband-and-wife owners Debra and Peter Maisel, were able to deliver what I hadn’t been able to find in Manhattan: clean Asian-inspired fare.
Over the years, visiting friends have asked: “What are your favorite Chinese restaurants in NYC?” They’re always taken aback when I can’t offer recommendations. Christopher and I don’t eat at Chinese restaurants anymore. Not that I have anything against Chinese food! After all, this is my cultural cuisine: it’s what I grew up eating. Both my parents were excellent Chinese cooks—the toast of every dinner party they threw—but their food, meticulously selected and prepared, highlighted fresh ingredients. Most importantly it was “clean”.
Clean Chinese food is something we’ve never found during many dining excursions to Chinatown or Flushing. Yes, dim sum can be fun. So can slurping soup noodles, or partaking in a lavish multicourse Chinese banquet. Sure, it tastes great in the moment; it’s the “afterwards” that I always regret. A food hangover, a.k.a. “Chinese restaurant syndrome” hits me like a Mack truck—bloating, dehydration, dry mouth, heart palpitations and a throbbing headache with a vice-like grip. Not to mention the insulin spike from the white rice. That’s how my body responds to a Chinese restaurant meal, flavored with that ubiquitous brown sauce, too much oil, salt, preservative-laden condiments and, of course, MSG. Unfortunately, through firsthand experience, I have experienced similar food hangovers—in varying degrees—at Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese and other Asian restaurants as well…
So, during a recent review meal at Luna (my review here: http://bit.ly/RHOLuna61), it was with some trepidation that I ordered one of their signature dishes: the Bangkok Curry Tofu, a stir-fried medley of organic vegetables over rice noodles in a “Thai coconut curry sauce”—hmmm, I couldn’t help wondering about that sauce. My apprehension, it turns out, was groundless. Every mouthful had a distinct delectable bite, fueled by Thai chilis, lemongrass, curry paste and galangal, a rhizome related to ginger. Though there was a hint of tamari, the dish omitted fish sauce, which contains loads of sodium. The flavors were fresh, balanced and deliciously savory.
Debra confirmed that her husband, who trained at the Natural Gourmet Institute, never uses store-bought Asian condiments—the couple make their own.
“We cook for people the way that we would eat at home—so if it’s an Asian dish, we prepare it without MSG, without preservatives or excessive salt—we don’t want headaches either!”
I confess: even after Debra shared this with me, I unconsciously braced myself for a skull crusher and a sleepless night.