In late September I was delighted to receive an email from a representative of Araka in Clayton informing me that the chef had recently added a number of new vegetarian and vegan items to the menu and suggesting that I come in to give them a try so as to post a review here. I was about two seconds from leaving for vacation but I quickly hopped on over to the site to see what was on offer and replied that I would definitely make a reservation when we got back in town.
Fast forward to last week when my husband and I made good on my promise to visit in celebration of our anniversary on the 24th. I decided to put off the reservation until then because Araka is a little fancier/pricier than an average (non-occasion) dinner out for us. I checked the menu online that day just to be sure all the new items were still available and proceeded to get super excited about trying everything out!
When we sat down at our table, I opened the menu just to take one last glance and to my great dismay, found that two of the three items I had planned to order were nowhere to be found. When I questioned our server about the differing menus online and in the restaurant and the whereabouts of the “new” vegan items I’d heard so much about, I was told that the menu had been changed again just a day or two earlier and obviously, not yet updated on the site. Ok…
What I had planned to order was the crispy tempeh bites appetizer, simple green salad (which featured raspberries) and soy-mirin tofu as an entree. The one new item I was interested in that still appeared on the new, new menu was the crispy tempeh bites appetizer. The salad was still there, but had a completely different description that included gorgonzola cheese crumbles even though it was marked “v” (for vegan) on the menu (more on that later). I was told the soy-mirin tofu had morphed into a pasta dish now branded “Green Tea Noodles” and covered in a ginger-hoison sauce. Color me unhappy.
I went ahead and ordered the tempeh bites, new simple green salad sans cheese and the green tea noodles (despite the fact that I loathe ginger). I was told that the only vegetarian entree still on the menu, roasted acorn squash, could easily be made vegan, but as luck would have it, I hate squash even more than I hate ginger, so there you go.
My husband enjoyed the crispy tempeh bites, and they weren’t bad but I think there’s way too much tempeh, not enough crispy going on there. And the sauce was unpleasant. My entree was so-so. The tofu was a little too soft for my tastes and, of course, I could have done without the ginger. You’ll notice that I skipped over the salad. That would be because as mediocre as the rest of my meal at Araka was, the salad was dynamite!
I assume the ingredients on this change with the season. Right now it’s apple cider vinaigrette, red pear, gorgonzola (optional), croutons and toasted walnuts on a bed of baby greens. You all know I’m not big on salads, but this salad was SO good I was almost mad I had to share it with my husband! The dressing was uh-mazing. I’ve since tried to duplicate it at home, to no avail. I’m not giving up though! I enjoyed this so much that I obviously forgot to take a picture of it before I ate it all.
So, the salad and the fact that Tony LaRussa was seated a few tables away from us about mid-way through our meal, totally saved the Araka experience for me. Sans Tony sighting though, that’s pretty thin ice to be skating on for a meal that cost as much as it did.
Although I was ticked that the menu items I’d been asked to try weren’t still available just one month later, I’m told that frequently changing up the menu is pretty standard here, so I suppose that’s forgivable. What is not cool though, is not immediately updating the online menu anytime there is a change. If there is a menu available online (and there should be!), it should be the exact same menu that customers are handed in the dining room – no exceptions. This is especially important for diners with restricted diets, for health reasons or otherwise.
Also not cool, botching menu designations for items that are appropriate for special populations. In Araka’s case, that’s gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan. I certainly appreciate the effort and I see that this has since been fixed on the online menu (which has also since been updated). I”m also sure it was an innocent mistake, but it’s a problem for two reasons:
- If I restrict my diet for health reasons, an allergy to dairy for example, I may be less careful about reading descriptions or asking questions on items that are marked dairy-free (vegan). If something is mistakenly marked and I eat it, it could be life threatening.
- I noticed two items on the menu that were marked vegan that had cheese listed in their descriptions. As a vegan, this makes me nervous that the chef doesn’t really understand what it means for a food to be vegan. I start wondering about what might be lurking in the other things I ordered.
So, overall not the most awesome experience. However, if you’re a vegan in St. Louis, your options for higher-end dining are a tad limited and you certainly have to appreciate that Araka is really trying. I would definitely consider this place for a special occasion, but just be sure to check the menu to verify that there will be appealing vegan items available before you go (and confirm that the online menu is up to date) and read descriptions carefully when you order.