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Luna 61: Vegetarian Fare with Asian Flair

You don’t have to be a vegetarian to love vegetarian food, as cultural correspondent Bess Hochstein learned on a recent visit to Luna 61, any more than you have to be Italian to love a good pizza. Hochstein, a vegan who dines out often in all sorts of restaurants, can tick off the handful in our region whose vegetarian offering(s) are more than desultory concessions. Which is why Luna 61 came as such a pleasant surprise. Owners Debra and Peter Maisel (she bakes, he’s the chef) pack so much punch into every bite even a devout omnivore would tend to focus on what’s there and forget what’s not.

Rural Intelligence Foodby Bess J.M Hochstein

Throw a rock in our region and you’re likely to hit a yoga teacher, reiki master, herbalist, massage therapist, or other holistic practitioner. Which makes it seem odd that vegetarian restaurants are so rare here. Many local dining establishments do serve up a meatless option or two – notably Chez Nous in Lee, where co-owner and pastry chef Rachel Portnoy, herself a vegetarian, has some sway in the kitchen over her traditional-French-chef husband, Franck Tessier; Swoon Kitchenbar in Hudson, one of the few local participants in the global Meatless Monday movement; and the Hudson branch of Mexican Radio, which goes so far as to offer not just faux meat but also dairy substitutes to accommodate both vegetarians and vegans. And, of course, the region’s Asian and Indian restaurants generally have a list of vegetarian dishes.

Rural Intelligence FoodThose seeking a meat-free dining environment, however, are mostly out of luck. Even Kripalu added chicken and fish to its buffet a few years ago.

Fortunately for compassionate foodies, there’s Luna 61 in Tivoli, where husband-and-wife team Debra and Peter Maisel have been serving vegetarian meals after having relocated from Red Hook six years ago. Omnivorous diners who fear that vegetarian means bland beans, greens, tofu, and rice can happily take a seat in Luna 61’s cheery, chartreuse dining room without trepidation. A hearty, flavorful meal, prepared from organic, as-local-as-possible ingredients, awaits.

Rural Intelligence Food Chef Peter Maisel, who studied with Annemarie Colbin at New York’s Natural Gourmet Institute, mans the kitchen. He has a bold hand with spice and a keen understanding of balancing sweet, hot, salty, and sour flavors, which he puts to use in creative interpretations of international cuisine. 

Debra Maisel runs the front of the house and does the baking, turning out homey, seasonal fruit pies, crisps, and tarts, as well as luscious cakes, many of which are vegan. She also prepares fresh fruit beverages, such as watermelon strawberry lemonade, refreshing on a recent scorching day.

Among the Starters, Scallion Pancakes present a surprise; rather than the flat disc served at Chinese restaurants, they’re upright cones of crispy flatbread wrapped around fresh vegetables. The Vietnamese Salad Roll is a more faithful rendition of the classic summer roll, with a suitably spicy peanut sauce, which, like all the restaurant’s sauces and dressings, is made from scratch. The appetizer menu is full of creative rolls, such as the Maki 61 sushi roll with shiitake mushrooms and avocado, or the Galaxy, bite-sized Rural Intelligence Food cones made from a tortilla wrap filled with portabellas, mock Canadian bacon, and veggies. Notes Debra, “Our customers often make a meal of them.”

You could also make a meal of the menu’s hearty salads, such as Roasted Root (beets, carrots, and onions over field greens); Land and Sea (arame, daikon, carrots, red cabbage, and scallions over mesclun); and Wild Mushroom, Potato and Kale Salad. A globetrotting list of sandwiches includes the Cuban Press (panko-crusted portabello, roasted red peppers, and sautéed spinach, with goat cheese or tofu), the Curry Roti Wrap, falafel, burrito, and a tempeh reuben.

Rural Intelligence FoodPeter’s Asian culinary inclinations shine through in the main courses, with fiesty, filling dishes like Bangkok Curry Tofu, Pad Thai, or Laksa Noodlepot, and a nightly special, such as the Korean Kimchee Noodlepot—with house-pickled cabbage and daikon – available on a recent visit. Vegetarians can indulge without fear of hidden, animal-derived ingredients, like fish sauce or shrimp paste, that are common in Aisan cuisine. Debra points out that the sweet potato enchiladas and the ravioli—which changes daily—are also perennially popular. “We try to change the menu,” she says, “but our customers always complain when we take something off.” That doesn’t stop them from coming up with new seasonal temptations, like a current plate of raw cheese from Pine Plains and local peaches on a bed of arugula with pumpkin seeds and lemon basil vinaigrette.

Portions are generous and Peter’s irresistible sauces may compel you to lick the plate clean, but you’ll definitely want to leave room for one of Debra’s desserts, even if you take it to go, which we recently did with a slice fresh peach pie. After tearing through that humble vegan dessert later the same evening, we seriously regretted not having ordered two slices.

Rural Intelligence Food Debra explains that about ninety percent of the menu is vegan, or can be made vegan by leaving out cheese. She also claims it’s not an issue for the majority of her clientele, which draws heavily from nearby Bard College.  “About seventy percent of our customers are not vegetarian,” says Debra. “And why should that be surprising? You don’t have to be Chinese to go to a Chinese restaurant. You don’t have to be Mexican to a Mexican restaurant. People come here for good, clean, organic food.”

She and her husband initially gravitated toward a vegetarian diet for health reasons; Peter lost his mother, his father, and other close family members to cancer, and he has the Ashkenazi genetic predisposition to the disease. As Debra describes it, the couple used to be “hardcore macrobiotic,” though they’ve loosened up over time. Still, health is not the only reason they’ve chosen to eat and serve vegetarian food. “We don’t like killing animals,” she says. “We’re animal lovers.” They’ve got four adopted dogs and four cats at home, plus a bevy of feral cats that Debra cares for, to prove the point.

Even gluten-free vegans will find a warm reception and a good meal at Luna 61, though, perhaps surprisingly, Chelsea Clinton and her now-vegan dad did not stop by on the lead-up to Chelsea’s recent wedding in nearby Rhinebeck. But Debra notes Luna 61 did get some business from the former Clinton administration during the nuptials. “Madeleine Albrigtht stopped for our banana cream pie,” says Debra. “We’re famous for our banana cream pie. We always have to have it on the menu.”

Luna 61
55 Broadway
Tivoli, NY
Dinner: Monday,Tuesday & Thursday,  5 - 9 p.m.; Friday & Saturday 5 - 10 p.m.
Brunch: Sunday 9:30 - 4:00

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Posted by Bess Hochstein on 08/23/11 at 12:17 PM • Permalink