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Published Monday, March 7, 2016

Phine Phood for Phat Cats, Even for a Vegetarian

By Todd Feinburg

Restaurant co-owner Christina Johnson takes burger buns out of the oven at Phat Cats Bistro in Amesbury. “When we opened up eight years ago, we decided to make everything from scratch, from bread to desserts,” she said.

Becoming a “vegan” requires a pretty big commitment, but it’s something I’ve been working on after seeing the movie “Forks Over Knives,” about six weeks ago. In the meantime, I’m eating vegetarian. Perhaps being vegetarian will be enough – I’m still trying to figure it out.

The film, which you can find on Netflix, presents a pair of doctors who believe that many modern maladies develop as a result of eating meat. Things like high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels and diabetes are unnecessary, they argue, along with the drugs readily prescribed to accompany them, and can easily be eliminated or prevented by living on a plant-based diet.

Veganism is a big thing with young folks. Chat with a barista in possession of unwrinkled skin, abundant tattoos and pieces of metal sticking out of various parts of their faces and learn more. They claim veganism as their lifestyle with unusual frequency, although I don’t think it accounts for any of the above abnormalities. But none of them say they’re vegetarian.

One tough part of tackling this dietary change is to figure out where the difference lies between the two non-meat approaches. It seems to have something to do with your motivation – whether you want to save animals, or if your goal is to save yourself. I suspect the millenials behind the counter have adopted the modern disdain for harming animals and that this is why they never say they’re vegetarian. Vegans seem to be more focused on the philosophical part of the food preference decision.

On Wikipedia, veganism is described as “both the practice of abstaining from the use of animal products, particularly in diet, and the philosophy that rejects the commodity status of animals.”

The Wikipedia definition of a vegetarian is someone who abstains “from the consumption of meat (red meat, poultry, seafood, insects and the flesh of any other animal), and may also include abstention from by-products of animal slaughter.”

The contrast offered by these definitions leaves some grounds for confusion, so I’ve adopted this shorthand: vegans rule out all meat and fish, and their accompanying broths, as well as any dairy. Vegetarians might still eat cheeses and make random compromises on things like eating poultry or fish.

Another hard part of being vegetarian is going out to eat. Being married to a chef, I avoid menu conflict most of the time eating at home, as my wife has somewhat happily turned her creativity to making delightful meat-free delights. Restaurants are different. While most have an item or two that are meat free, for most it seems to be an afterthought.

Specials like yellowfin tuna (above) and duck are among the regular offerings at Phat Cats Bistro.

After a visit to Tendercrop Farm in Newbury to stock up on veggies for the house on Saturday afternoon, we were ready for an early dinner and headed over to a restaurant called Phat Cats Bistro in Amesbury. “Friendly, casual place,” our friend John had told us. “Good prices, really good food.”

True on all counts, thank you very much John. But even better, they are unusually embracing of the idea of vegetables as meals.

By the time we arrived at 5:15, they’d been open for 15 minutes and couldn’t spare a table in the dining room, so we happily grabbed a couple of bar seats. Ashley was behind the bar, chatting away like we were regulars and making us feel totally comfortable.

Ashley responded with cheer when I mentioned being vegetarian. “We’ve got tons of stuff for you,” she said, mentioning their Veggie Burger, “a real one, made here, not a manufactured little patty,” she assured. “I have a 17-year-old niece who’s been vegetarian since she was about eight,” explained co-owner Christina Johnson, “and that inspired me to make sure we had something for everyone.”

There were other veggie choices, too, like their Baked Pasta (small for $10, large for $13), which can be had with just tomato sauce or with optional meat and seafood enhancements. The same can be done to the Phat Cats Mac and Cheese (small for $10, large for $13) – have it with meat or seafood for additional charge. And I’m sure I would have been happy with the “House-made Herb Potato Gnocchi Romano,” ($11 and $16) described as “Handmade herb potato gnocchi’s simmered in a hardy pink sauce with fresh baby spinach, roasted red peppers, shallots and fontina cheese.” Nice.

They also offer a Stir-Fry with Rice, with an option of adding tofu rather than meat to keep it vegan (starts at $12) or a Multi-Grain Risotta sautéed with vegetables ($12 or $15) offered with the same options as the rice. That’s a pretty diverse vegetarian line-up for a restaurant whose menu is not big and is focused on offerings such as Creole Stew ($27) with a mix of seafoods and Andouille sausage, a Bistro Steak ($19) and Fish Tacos ($12).

But I went with the Veggie Burger, a large sloppy delight of fresh food that the menu describes as “A house-crafted patty of rice, grains and beans topped with caramelized onions, mushrooms and cheese served on a beer bun with tortilla chips.” What I liked best, beyond the fact that I was eating a fresh vegetable concoction rather than a vegetable hockey puck, was the homemade roll it arrived in. Seriously, where do they serve a $12 dinner entrée with a house made burger roll?

The food was very good – worthy of Phat Cats like us. One owner, Paul Eastman, was in the kitchen putting out the food, while the other, Christina Johnson, was working the dining room.

She also makes the breads and desserts, Ashley proudly announced. In my experience, the best local restaurants have at least one owner doing the cooking or working the dining room.

If you’re vegetarian or considering making the switch, the Phat Cats Bistro is the model that you will expect other restaurants to match.

“We set out to create a neighborhood restaurant where people would feel comfortable, even when coming by themselves, and fortunately we’ve succeeded,” said Johnson.

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