I did not become a vegetarian for my health, I did it for the health of the chickens," said Isaac Bashevis Singer, winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in Literature.
I have not become a vegetarian, but for the sake of my health I've been seeking out vegetarian dishes in local restaurants -- a more difficult hunt than you might imagine.
Few restaurants offer many vegetarian dishes beyond artichoke dip and hummus. And in many restaurants, the vegetables served as side dishes are simply uninspired afterthoughts.
At Gertrude's on the west side, however, vegetables and vegetarian dishes are more than mere appetizers and far more than afterthoughts.
Gertrude's menu of Small Plates, for example, includes hummus with pita bread but also originals such as the Onion and Mozzarella Tart ($7.50).
The Artichoke and Caramelized Onion Crepes ($6.95) is a savory, warm dish of delicate, olive oil-brushed crepes stuffed with a creamy combo of artichokes, onions and Romano cheese. Light and crispy, the half-moons come out of the oven slightly browned and are served with a cool cup of sour cream.
The Baked Vegetable Crisps are equally unique. Sweet potatoes, russets, beets, carrots and rutabagas are thinly sliced and doused with olive oil, then baked to a crisp in a hot oven. The colorful, aromatic chips also are served with sour cream, dotted with chives.
On the nights I visited, both soups were vegetarian: creamy tomato basil and vegetarian black bean chili.
Five salads are offered, and the Warm Apple Salad ($9.50) is a nicely balanced mix of gorgonzola cheese, toasted walnuts and grilled, thinly sliced apples over wild greens, served with a rich, warm port vinaigrette.
I love the combination of fruit, cheese and nuts on a salad, and this one sent me into spasms of joy. Never having tasted a grilled apple, this was an awakening for me: sweet, slightly caramelized and chewy, with grill marks. Topped with the heavy port dressing, it's heavenly.
Gertrude's offers an extensive selection of pasta dishes, all vegetarian unless you choose to add grilled chicken or shrimp.
The one vegetarian dish on the entre menu, Roasted Vegetable Manicotti ($13.95), is a creamy mountain of rolled pasta stuffed with a mixture of artichokes, mushrooms, spinach and herbed ricotta, topped with a light marinara sauce and Romano cheese. The portion size is enormous. Plan on making two meals of this one.
In addition to Gertrude's fresh, flavorful and imaginative treatment of vegetables, you get a variety of ordering options, spelled out on the menu so you don't have to ask. All salads can be ordered in half portions ($4.95). Same with the pastas ($6.95).
Grilled portobellos can be added to any of the salads or pastas for $3. And two affordable soup-and-salad combos are available on the dinner menu: a cup with a half salad ($7.95) or a bowl with half salad ($8.95).
That tells me that executive chef Robert Wooldridge has listened to his customers over the years. While many chefs are willing to make changes for a particular customer, few spell out so many options for everyone with such clarity and generosity.
-- Kathryn Eastburn
2625 W. Colorado Ave.
gertrudesrestaurant.com or 471-0887
Hours: Breakfast daily, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Lunch Monday-Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 2:45 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner Tuesday-Saturday, 5-9 p.m.