“You don’t have to be vegetarian to eat here,” says Debra Maisel, who co-owns Luna 61 in Tivoli with her chef-husband Peter Maisel. “And we’re not trying to reincarnate anyone either!”
It’s been 17 years since the Maisels first welcomed patrons to Luna 61, their eclectic vegetarian restaurant, which originally opened on East Market Street in Red Hook before relocating to Tivoli seven years ago.
Despite challenging economic times, Luna has a customer base that keeps growing. “People are realizing that healthy,`clean’ food — as in whole, unprocessed foods — doesn’t have to taste boring,” says Debra, adding, “We’re one of the few mom-and-pop eateries around where everything is still made from scratch — and full of real food flavor.”
Debra, a self-taught baker, runs the front-of-the-house. Peter, who studied at the Natural Gourmet Institute in Manhattan, with founder Annemarie Colbin, helms the kitchen. The menu is eclectic, reflecting Peter’s affinity for Asian flavors, particularly Thai.
Luna is the couple’s fifth restaurant. After Peter finished his training, he and Debra spent nine years living in Portland, Oregon, immersed in the vegetarian restaurant world. Missing family, the Maisels returned to New York, resettling in Tivoli. They decided to open an organic, vegetarian restaurant, which, in 1995, felt like a challenge: “There are lots of serious meat-eaters in the Hudson Valley,” says Debra.
Yet, they’ve never had a shortage of customers.
It is a go-to eatery for Bard College faculty and students (with some graduates returning year after year for favorite dishes). But not just.
Luna has fed many of its customers “in utero,” jokes Debra, who has watched the children of their customers grow up through the years. Luna is also an oasis for an increasing population of diners with food allergies or sensitivities.
On a recent Friday evening, my husband, Christopher, and I popped in for dinner. It’s a cozy, inviting space, featuring a spiral staircase mid-dining room that leads to a charming loft-like dining nook. Artwork-adorned chartreuse walls and 1950s vintage décor, including eye-catching teal-colored booths, add to Luna’s arty, funky vibe. There’s outdoor patio seating, too, a welcome warm-weather option.
Luna does offer seasonal specialties, but the main menu hasn’t changed much over the years. “People get pissy if they don’t see their favorite dishes on the menu!” Debra says.
We decided to share the signature Scallion Pancake ($8). They are not, we discovered, Chinese-style pan-fried discs of scallion-studded dough. Peter’s version is a fun play on sushi rolls — his scallion pancake serves as a “wrap” for a filling of grated carrot, lettuce, scallions and seaweed. On this particular night, we found the scallion pancake overly browned and crisp; it was also too bulky and dense to work as an ideal “wrap.” The accompanying house-made sweet chili sauce was dynamite, though.
We’re avid salad eaters. And Luna is the right place to come for clean greens. In season, the Maisels use local produce from farms that, while not officially certified organic, do not spray their crops. In winter and spring, they use organic produce from California.
Christopher ordered the special: an arugula salad with blackberries and goat cheese, dressed in a sesame-balsamic vinaigrette and topped with julienned carrot ($9). Fresh and delicious. Similarly presented, my “Land & Sea” ($9) — a bed of mesclun topped with arame seaweed, julienned daikon, carrot and purple cabbage drizzled with sesame-balsamic vinaigrette — was also nicely done.
In a “meaty” kind of mood, Christopher ordered the Seitan Picatta ($17), which features Peter’s homemade seitan, a.k.a. wheat gluten, the high-protein, low-carbohydrate “mock meat” popular with vegetarians. His panko-crusted seitan cutlets, in a lemon-white wine caper sauce, rested on a bed of quinoa. The capers imbued the dish with a distinct pickle flavoring. This fusion creation, says Debra, was inspired by Peter’s passion for salty, briny foods.
My entrée, the Bangkok Curry Tofu ($16), was a delicious revelation. A generous bowl of rice noodles, topped with an organic vegetable mélange of broccoli, eggplant, carrots, bok choy and red peppers, in a zesty coconut curry sauce, was pure vegetarian comfort food, savory and soothing. I’m generally wary of ordering Asian-style dishes because Asian condiments — whether fish sauce, hoisin, or spicy Thai sriracha sauce — typically contain loads of sodium, additives, artificial coloring or preservatives. Not here. Peter uses fresh (not bottled) ingredients — Thai chilies, lemongrass, galangal, and tamari — in a seamless marriage of flavors.
Though full, we still had room for dessert. The banana cream pie is a house favorite. Debra’s array of tempting desserts ($7) also includes vegan and gluten-free choices. We shared the flourless chocolate torte (gluten-free). Rich and dense, it was pleasingly not too sweet.
There’s an all-organic wine list, including a nightly selection of four wines-by-the-glass ($8). Luna offers organic beers, too, like Peak Organic, Munster Alt and Hefeweizen, as well as Annandale Atomic Hard Cider, made locally at Montgomery Place Orchards.
It’s easy to believe Debra when she says, “People who come here forget that they’re eating in a ‘vegetarian’ restaurant’!”
Luna 61 (www.luna61.com)
Monday, Tuesday & Thursday: 5pm-9pm
Friday & Saturday: 5pm-10pm
Sunday: Brunch: 10am-4pm; 5pm-9pm (dinner)