The Vegetarian Option: Comfort Food at Penelope in Murray Hill Leaves Something to Be Desired
Murray Hill has a couple of reps, namely fratty bars and Indian restaurants. But then there's Penelope, a comfort food fixture that opened on the corner of Lexington and 30th a decade ago. We've covered their breakfast and brunch, but now wanted to see how their veg-friendly dinner menu stacks up.
The interior of Penelope is meant to evoke the homey, laid-back atmosphere of a cafe you might encounter in a sleepy New England town: tables and plates are adorned with tiny blue daisies, and even the ceiling fans are shaped like flowers. The menu calls the restaurant's kitchen "cozy," by way of explaining that substitutions are not allowed.
That kind of preciousness is fine if the food supports it. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case during a recent visit to Penelope. An asparagus and feta salad ($11, pictured at top) was misnamed: in actuality, it was a pile of underdressed, under-seasoned baby arugula topped with a few spears of sweet, crisp asparagus—I wish there had been more of them. The titular feta, too, was lacking: a few tiny crumbles of the cheese didn't have much flavor or texture. A healthy amount of shredded cucumber and a few wan tomatoes were added to the mix, but didn't contribute much to the salad; rings of sweet roasted shallot, though, were a welcome addition.
Penelope's mac and cheese ($11) is impressively bland. Elbow pasta mixed with green peas lacked the barest hint of salt and had almost no discernible cheese—as a dining companion commented, "It tastes like a rice cake." A few breadcrumbs scattered along the top of pasta didn't add much, but at least they didn't taste of the white truffle the menu advertised.
The one bright spot in dinner was the restaurant's superb FBLT ($11.50), a—yes—fakin' bacon BLT served on toasted sourdough bread. Smoky, satisfying tempeh bacon was layered with creamy avocado, lettuce, and tomato, and anchored to the chewy bread with balsamic mayo. The excellent sandwich was nearly outdone by the crisp, salty skin-on fries served alongside it.
Penelope's approachable, all-are-welcome vibe extends to its menu, which offers many vegetarian-friendly dishes, including a black bean burger and a vegetable terrine I didn't get a chance to sample. But until the restaurant significantly ups its standards at dinner, the area's nearby vegetarian Indian restaurants make much worthier destinations for a meatless meal. Save this one for breakfast.
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.