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Photograph by Chris Revell

No Animals Were Harmed in the Eating of This Dinner: Stoa's menu offers comestibles with a conscience.

Turning Veg Heads

Palo Alto's casually glamorous Stoa Restaurant and Wine Bar gives meat-free dining delicious sophistication

By Christina Waters

FOOD SO LOVELY it took our breath away is served in Stoa's pale-yellow rooms appointed with thick, white table linens and outbursts of colorful artwork. Leaping past the tofu burger and landing in designer territory long deserved by vegetarian gourmets, chef/owners Meekk and Rick Vargas have transformed the former Palo Alto Joe's industrial park space into an oasis of organic produce and sensuous seasonings.

It's refreshing to find a spot where thoughtful and attractive meatless dishes are showcased, even down to the appetizers (some of which were on the pricey side but, in my opinion, well worth it). The Mediterranean inclination of the Vargas' menu collaborates easily with fresh California seasonal harvests. Rennet-free cheeses accent pizzettas, quiches and pastas, and a sensational crusty levain bread arrives with an addictive fresh pea "butter" richly puréed with walnuts and caramelized onions.

We joined plenty of other enlightened gastronomes lunching last week. Sparkling juices and myriad teas dot the menu, from which I chose a cool, refreshing elder-flower elixir made from San Pellegrino splashed with d'Arbo fruit syrup ($3.75).

The wine menu is compact but roams through the traditional and innovative wine regions of the world. As fellow diners oohed and aahed over their bountiful salads, we started lunch on pretty plates of tender, light empanadas filled with black beans ($9) and another of potstickers ($9) filled with shiitakes, caramelized onions and kabocha squash.

Care is taken to list or explain all ingredients in each dish, but even the helpful server didn't prepare me for the appealing presentation and flavor intricacy of these meat-free dishes. The formal similarity of both crescent empanada and crescent potsticker reminded me that the concept of the filled pastry must be one of the oldest food ideas extant.

Shape was, however, the only similarity. The potstickers arrived with a soy-based dipping sauce, on a wide plate flecked with garlic chives. The empanadas clustered around a central mound of roasted-corn salsa, spicy and delicious, and a pool of light tomato broth encircled everything.

The Latin and the Asian influences of each dish were given a light hand by the kitchen, and in the end it was the use of flawless fresh ingredients that made the biggest statement.

A large pizzetta topped with buffalo mozzarella and a variety of oyster and crimini mushrooms showed off the kitchen's pizza crust expertise ($12). Light, delicious and offering just the right amount of chewy resistance, the pizzetta made for a splendid main dish.

But a lavish presentation of truffled spinach ravioli showed just why it is rightly considered the house specialty. Fat tumescent pillows, the oversize raviolis were gently filled with a delicious mix of truffled spinach and ricotta and lightly sauced with a bravura tomato fresca sauce, fresh basil and a few top notes of pungent goat cheese ($12). It was a sensational pasta and, all by itself, made the visit to Stoa more than just a stroll around the marketplace. (In Greek, stoa = marketplace, and if you'll recall your Platonic studies, Socrates and some of his rivals--the Stoics--philosophized their way around the Athenian stoa on a daily basis.)

Yes, the ravioli ruled. Until, that is, I set my fork (beautiful table settings here) into a celestial cylinder of fresh apple strudel in the lightest imaginable filo pastry heavily dusted with powdered sugar ($7). The remarkable and generous apple pastry arrived on a plate centered with a small ramekin filled with homemade vanilla ice cream and a composed garnish of fresh berries, mango slices and mint leaves. Creamy and colorful, served with an impeccable Illy Caffe espresso, it made new sense of the dessert concept. But I'm sure Stoa's celebrated chocolate mousse would have done the same. I'll find out next time.

Stoa Restaurant and Wine Bar
Address: 3750 Fabian Way, off Highway 101 and San Antonio Road, Palo Alto
Phone: 650.424.3900
Hours: 11:30am-midnight Mon-Thu, till 1am Fri; 5:30pm-1am Sat ; Sun brunch 11am-2pm, 5:30pm-midnight
Price Range: Moderate-pricy
Cuisine: Vegetarian

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From the September 25-October 1, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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