The Vegetarian Option

Dining out meat-free.

Jack's Wife Freda Is More About the Vibe Than the Food

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At this Soho café, reasonably-priced Mediterranean bites aren't quite compelling enough, but a cozy atmosphere is one good reason to stay awhile. [Photographs: Lauren Rothman]

As you walk down Soho's cobblestoned streets, Jack's Wife Freda, a small, adorable cafe on Lafayette, fits right in. As I grabbed a plush booth I immediately felt at home in the white-walled space, its low ceiling hung with round, softly glowing lights. Glancing down at the menu, I felt equally comforted by a tasty-sounding selection of meat-free Mediterranean-inspired lunch dishes. This restaurant and I, I thought, were going to be fast friends.

For starters, there's a vegetarian go-to of shakshuka ($10, eggs poached in a thick, spicy tomato sauce), but here two nicely poached eggs come bathed instead in a thick green chili sauce that, with its touches of cilantro, onion, and cumin, suggest Santa Fe more than Tel Aviv. On first few bites, the sauce tastes nicely balanced, but disappointingly the flavors don't build, and there's little to keep you coming back for more. A couple small slices of challah toast on the side aren't enough to bulk this up into a meal.

A Mediterranean Breakfast ($12), a plate of eggs any style served with grilled flatbread, slices of avocado, chopped tomato and cucumber salad, and a dollop of labne, is just alright. My over-medium eggs nicely cooked, the flatbread warm and pillowy, the chopped salad relatively flavorful despite the out-of-season produce. But, again, I didn't feel like anything coalesced here: it was that feeling of, well, I could probably make this at home that's always kind of a downer when eating out.

You'll do better with a thick slab of Avocado Toast ($11) served with a mound of crispy, starchy, perfectly seasoned thick-cut fries. A piece of toast spread with avocado—possibly the world's simplest snack—has gotta be pretty damned good if I'm going to order it in a restaurant. Luckily, Jack's Wife Freda's version is nice, the creamy, seasoned avocado smeared thickly on a nutty, seedy piece of whole grain bread topped with shredded carrots (the menu called them pickled; they were not), a subtly spicy tomato jam, and a heavy dusting of za'atar, possibly my favorite seasoning of all time. Worth $11? Probably not. Tasty? Yes, indeed.

The vegetarian food here needs some work, but the vibe is spot-on: calm but alive with chatter, a cozy hideaway from the rainstorm outside. And it's worth mentioning that the prices here are quite reasonable, especially for a restaurant in the heart of trendy Soho, where the owners could charge a heck of a lot more—but I'd rather pay $3 or $4 more bucks per plate for truly inventive food than $10 for a mediocre one.

Even so, when my waitress came by and asked if I was ready for my check, I ordered a coffee and decided to linger awhile.

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