Bell Book & Candle
141 West 10th Street (between Greenwich Ave and Waverly Pl; map); 212-414-2355; bbandcnyc.com
Veggie Options: 4 bites/sides, 2 soups, 3 salads, 1 entrée
Cost: Bites/sides $5-10, soup/salad $6-12, entrée $17
There is only one main reason I was drawn to Bell Book & Candle. Not their pledge to sustainability and local, organic ingredients (always a good thing) and not their aeroponic roof-top tower garden (an applaudable feat). It's their vegetarian French onion soup. Finding a version that's not based on a beef broth is nearly impossible, so when I heard good things about the Irish-American version served at Bell Book & Candle based on a shiitake mushroom broth, it was all the reason I needed to check out this West Village establishment.
For a place that serves such a rare vegetarian commodity there is not actually a whole lot else on the menu that is meatless, which at least makes ordering a little simpler. None of the appetizers are vegetarian and the only entrée to choose from is a vegetable plate; however, there are a few bites/sides and salads to pick from which will liven up your ordering process.
We were persuaded to try the burrata ($12), and we were very glad that we did. For those who haven't had it, burrata is a cheese that resembles mozzarella on the outside, but is filled with cream and bits of curd on the inside. Here, the burrata is served "deconstructed bruschetta style" with cherry tomatoes, crusty toasts, and ramps—altogether they make for a very happy springtime combination.
A quick side note: at Bell Book & Candle, they charge for the water. It may be an easy way to get groans and complaints, but you can't get plain old tap water. Instead, each person is charged $1 for unlimited water that has been filtered onsite, with their choice of sparkling or still. In the end it's a fair charge, but potentially a point of surprise and contention for those who would rather drink from the tap and avoid any extra charges.
But I digress; we're here for the soup. The Irish-American onion soup ($8) is not so much a vegetarian version of French onion soup as it is a second or third cousin of it. Which isn't a bad thing. Not only has the beef broth been replaced with the intense flavor of dried shitake mushrooms, but the thick layer of cheese on top is a combination of Gruyère and oak-smoked Irish Cheddar, giving the dish a distinctly smoky, earthy flavor profile. Beneath the cheese is a broth-soaked slice of house-baked sourdough, and the broth itself is teeming with onion. Overall it's a much more bold and robust soup than its comparably delicate French relative, but as long as that's what you're in the mood for you'll definitely find it satisfying.
We also went ahead and tried the only vegetarian entrée on the menu--a plate of grilled and roasted seasonal vegetables ($17) served with a rich red pepper romesco sauce. Given my usual low hopes for the dreaded "vegetable platter" (generally code for "we don't serve your kind here, but we'll throw some sides on a plate if you insist"), it certainly exceeded expectations. The vegetables are surprisingly well seasoned and true to their own flavors. The cherry tomatoes alone were a total knockout—I had no idea they could be so flavorful. But while the vegetables were all around quite good, we couldn't help but wonder whether they were $17-entrée-good, which is perhaps an inevitable pitfall of the veggie platter.
While my initial reason for trying out Bell Book & Candle was the soup, their strengths definitely lie in the quality and freshness of their ingredients. As much as can be made in house is, and not only are the ingredients organic, seasonal, and local, but many of them are grown immediately overhead on the rooftop garden. The biggest downside was that the vegetarian dishes—while good—were only so exciting, and you can pretty much exhaust the menu in one trip until it changes with the seasons. But perhaps, like me, all you want is a hearty bowl of soup. In that case, you know where to find it.