Ukrop//23 Ulitsa Marata//Tel. 946 3036//Open daily 12 p.m. to 10 p.m.//Menu in Russian only//Dinner for two with a glass of wine 1,810 rubles ($60)

Published: January 23, 2013 (Issue # 1743)

Dilligent dining

Those faced with the predicament of where to take vegetarian — or, even more dire, vegan — guests in the city, or who want to go out to dinner and still feel good about themselves, will be glad to find the new vegetarian café Ukrop (Russian for “dill”) on the map. Diners are also sure to appreciate the eatery’s hip eco-friendly aesthetic: Think tree house taken over by home makeover show.

The cafe has two levels, with a coffee bar and seating area on the lower one, and another coffee bar and the main dining area on the top. Decorations include origami chandeliers, artistically rendered wall sculptures of dill plants, and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves arrayed with clay pots, clocks, books and other well-curated knickknacks.

The whimsical touches extend to the tables, which are separated from each other by high planters. On each table is a jar of coloring pencils, which, we were assured, are conscientiously sharpened each night before the next day of business. And don’t leave Ukrop without sticking your hands under the table — there you’ll find small pebbles, stones and even whole walnuts. Think of it as a raw, vegetarian, vegan, lactose-free hand massage.

While the menu — in Russian only — is available on the café’s website, it does not fully correspond to the up-to-date menu at Ukrop itself. The only English words on the menu are those explaining the “vegan,” “raw,” “milk” and “spicy” symbols beside the dishes.

The stereotype about Russia and borsh will never die if restaurants keep coming up with their own take on the classic beet soup. Ukrop’s otlichny(excellent) raw borsch (180 rubles, $6) translated into shreds of crispy, raw cabbage floating in a cold beet broth and sprinkled liberally with the herb most loved by Russians and after which the café is named: Dill. While the greasy, meaty taste that permeates most bouillon-based borsch was not missed, the dish didn’t pack much punch. The crunchy Olivier salad (220 rubles, $7.30), which featured raw mayonnaise and innovative cubes of sweet potato in place of the usual ham, was just as fresh, but also nothing to moon over.

Our slightly bumbling but well-meaning waiter brought out the main courses while our jaws were still working on all that roughage. The vegetable cutlets with tomato tartare (180 rubles, $6), were made from some indefinable mixture of ground up nuts and raw vegetables, resulting in a tan-flecked, light green patty. While the creamy pesto offered some encouragement, the cutlets were still reminiscent of something you would put in your pocket before a long bike ride.

The ravioli with spinach, homemade cheese and pine nuts (260 rubles, $8.60) bore a close resemblance to fried wontons and were a pleasant surprise, garnished with a sweet sauce and a few leaves of arugula, and accompanied by a ramekin of sour cream.

The raw concept also extends to most of Ukrop’s desserts. The pomegranate tart (220 rubles, $7.30) was appealingly presented, covered in fresh pomegranate seeds and plated with a dusting of cocoa powder. The other tart, a “striped cashew cake” (220 rubles, $7.30), was made up of tan, pink and brown layers. The flavor was not unlike that of the vegetable cutlet.

A glass of German Klaus Langhoff white wine (180 rubles, $6), was as sweet as grape juice and served in a glass with a disturbing red stain, and the coffee (80 rubles, $2.60) was mediocre. Stick to the fresh juices and well-chosen tea list.

Except for the ravioli, with their appealing chew and satisfying flavors, this is food that announces itself as vegetarian at first bite. Expect to feel surprisingly heavy after eating here, as if you had dined on dense, protein-packed energy bars. On the other hand, Ukrop certainly offers freshness, in both food and atmosphere.

Even if it’s just for a coffee or a juice, it’s modestly priced and centrally located, and it’s good to know that something crisp, wholesome and full of fiber is only one recycled-paper menu away.

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