By Lesley Sykes
Pick your base—pizza dough, brown rice, or coconut rice—and then choose an entrée to go on top. Combinations like vegan peanut curry on a crisp pie or open-faced grilled cheese over rice may seem peculiar, but strangely, the combinations work. You would never call the fare at Veggie Planet refined or the dining atmosphere soothing (it is often chaotic) Still, Harvard Square denizens flock to the eatery for cheap and fresh meatless fare. This 9-year-old restaurant is doing lots of things right.
The adjoining music venue, now called Club Passim, has been around since 1958, but tenure of the nine-year-old dining spot has evolved. Veggie Planet owners Adam Penn and Didi Emmons took over the former Passim’s Kitchen spot in 2001. Since, it has been operating as an informal dining spot where the Harvard community and folk music patrons can sate their plant-based cravings.
The restaurant is easy to miss: you have to go down a flight of stairs from street level in an alley just off Harvard Square to find the unassuming redbrick façade. The small dining space (maximum capacity is 16) is populated with student hipsters, professors, and others who don’t mind the tiny 2-seat tables with low backless chairs. The customer crowd ranges from boisterous groups to solos.
Music spills from the adjacent club and clustered walls add to the mayhem; they’re covered with posters and bulletin boards that showcase upcoming concerts. Chalkboards with weekly pizza, soup, and salad specials hang above the noisy, semi-open kitchen that protrudes into the dining area.
Veggie Planet turns its ingredients (some locally-sourced) into well-made, flavorful food that will inspire all diners, even meat-lovers. The eclectic menu runs from smaller bites, a soup of the week, several salads, and an array of entrées that are served on either pizza or rice. Popular dinner specials include soup and salad combo ($7.25) or a small pizza with soup or salad combo ($10.75). The menu denotes vegan items and the kitchen welcomes substitutions or special requests. (In fact, they did this long before anyone else.)
The generous servings arrive fast and piping hot. The chips and dip ($5.50) is a great starter, especially homemade romesco sauce and hummus accompanying a heaping plate of toasted flatbread. Romesco sauce is the star, the deep-red spicy roasted pepper and almond puree lights up our taste buds. The weekly soup special is hot-ginger beet ($4.95, large); an interesting wine-colored puree of beets, aromatics, ginger and orange, not exactly lacking flavor but a bit thin and unsubstantial.
One of the best choices is Henry’s Dinner. The butternut squash pizza ($7.15, small) is rectangular shaped and cut in half to form two hefty pieces. Large dollops of goat cheese stand out and resemble poached eggs on the pie. Mild, salty cheese becomes deliciously runny with the touch of a fork, complimenting caramelized chunks of soft butternut squash and sweet sautéed onions.
We also devour the portobello “Redhead,” a rich concoction made with romesco sauce, topped generously with roasted portabellas and crumbled feta, and baked until pleasantly charred. The wheat crust is chewy and crisp with hardly a wheaty note, but the center is a bit doughy. Veggie Planet receives its organic pizza dough from Haley House Bakery and Café, which Emmons also owns.
It’s hard to go wrong with Mexican beans over chewy short-grain brown rice ($11.15, large). The smashed garlicky and well-seasoned black beans come heaping on an oval plate, topped with plenty of salsa and shredded pepper jack cheese. Chunky salsa is homemade and refreshing.
The special salad ($6.25, small) made of shredded Napa cabbage, tomato wedges, sliced cucumbers, and a few pumpkin seeds is lightly dressed with a delicious, sweet mint dressing. Greek salad ($6.50, small) is ordinary, but a nice accompaniment to the zesty portobello redhead pizza.
Dessert offerings are limited, but sometimes all you need is a homemade rich and chewy fudge brownie ($2.75) or a large scoop of homemade ice cream ($2.75), from the famed Christina’s in Inman Square. Or you can enjoy both topped with chocolate sauce ($4.75), but be sure to ask for an extra spoon. Nothing is more fun than sharing a sweet treat after a delightful and filling meal. No wonder Veggie Planet is approaching a decade in the Square.
47 Palmer St., Cambridge, Harvard Square, 617-661-1513. All major credit cards. Not wheelchair accessible.
Appetizers $4.50-$5.50; entrees $6.50-$11.35; desserts $2.75-$4.75
11:30 a.m. – 10:30 p.m. daily
May we suggest
Mexican beans; portobello redhead; Henry’s dinner; homemade brownie, ice cream and chocolate sauce.