The Vegetarian Option: Café Katja, a Lower East Side Favorite, Now More Veg-Friendly
Café Katja is just the type of cozy, unassuming New York restaurant where you want to while away the evening: its handsome, softly lit interior beckons as you pass the Orchard Street storefront's large glass windows; it's full of original details that call to mind the neighborhood's history, most notably the beautifully patterned off-white tin ceiling. On most nights, every table is occupied with diners sipping crisp Austrian wines or gulping robust German beers as they tuck into generous plates of sauerkraut, sausages, and dumplings.
The restaurant looks better than ever after a recent expansion into the storefront next door, opening up space for 27 more seats as well as a U-shaped bar in the middle of the dining room. And for vegetarian diners, Katja's makeover wasn't purely aesthetic: after its October reopening, the restaurant added several vegetarian dishes to its previously meat-heavy bill of fare.
An appetizer of red cabbage salad ($7) featured crisp, sweet cabbage and tart apples sprinkled with fresh chives, with some nice crunch from toasted walnuts. Though I couldn't detect any of the lingonberries mentioned on the menu, and the dressing is on the sweet side. This is your standard cabbage salad.
But things get way more interesting with the entrées. My dining companion and I were amazed at the size of the creamed spinach with poached egg and roasted veggie ($14). It's lightly creamed fresh baby spinach brightened by a touch of fresh nutmeg; a pile of well-seasoned, expertly roasted Brussels sprouts, carrots and parsnips; two feather-light semolina dumplings called griessnockerl; and a perfect, runny-yolked poached egg. This is exactly the type of main dish vegetarians look for when eating out: satisfying but not too heavy, with plenty of flavors and textures.
The next dish to arrive was a farro risotto with butternut squash and roasted vegetables ($15, pictured at top). The chewy, nutty grain was cooked just right and folded into a rich purée of sweet, bright orange butternut squash, then topped with a scattering of roasted Brussels and cubes of squash and finished with toasty chopped hazelnuts. Incredibly satisfying, the dish was just a touch too rich: the risotto was drizzled with a too-generous spoonful of brown butter, a sound idea that faltered in execution. Hopefully the over-dressing was an aberration, because with just a touch of the butter, the dish would have been near-perfect.
Katja's expansion has been so successful that the restaurant is already planning another one. Let's hope that the next reopening brings even more of these stellar vegetarian options to the menu.
About the author: Lauren Rothman is a former Serious Eats intern, a freelance catering chef, and an obsessive chronicler of all things culinary. Try the original recipes on her blog, For the Love of Food, and follow her on Twitter @Lochina186.