Hungry for Shades of Green

shades of green closed exterior

The Shades of Green storefront after it closed. Jewel of India is now in that space.

By Leigh Cummings

soapbox badgeIt might be silly and overly nostalgic, but years after its demise I'm still mourning the late great Shades of Green.

Like a lost love, absence has only made the heart grow fonder... and hungrier.

If you weren't in the area during that time or never had the pleasure, let me tell you, Shades was an absolute wonderland. It wasn't fancy: soups, sandwiches, and fresh-squeezed juices served from a small kitchen on Lark Street, but there was just something special about the food and the atmosphere. Vegetarians and non-vegetarians sat side by side enjoying meals that, regardless of labels, were just plain addictive.

Years after it closed, people are still lamenting its demise. And it left a vegetarian void in the Capital Region that has yet to be filled.

A friend of mine who is very much a meat-eater still gets a glossy faraway look in his eyes when we talk about the tempeh Reuben at Shades of Green. It holds a place in his heart as the "best sandwich ever." And I've spent about a decade trying to reproduce their recipe for cold sesame noodles, to little avail.

Now it seems the vegetarian culture in Albany has been forcibly scattered. You can get a transcendent tofu dish at Van's, or brunch with a side of Morningstar sausage at Iron Gate. Lil' Buddha's salads are amazing, there's always Antipasto's in Clifton Park for a slightly more upscale experience, but the vegetarian community no longer seems to organize and orbit around a logical center. It's possible that I miss that sense of solidarity more than the Shades of Green menu.

The way I see it, there are two different camps when it comes to the area's vegetarian fare. It's either "health food" or "junk food." Little Anthony's short-lived vegan spinoff, Food for Thought, fell firmly into the junk food camp: pizzas with soy mozzerella, faux Philly cheese steaks and french fries. It was a noble attempt to appeal to and build a clientele that isn't necessarily interested in sprouts and wheatgrass. Unfortunately its rise and fall was so quick that the target audience just didn't materialize. Each time I visited, the dining space was either empty or nearly-empty. In fact, the only successful vegetarian junk food restaurant I can think of is Empire Wok in Delmar, where they have a whole separate menu filled with mind-blowing selections like veggie pork fried rice and cashew chicken. The dishes feature a rainbow of fake meats made by May Wah Foods, the same company that gives us Bombers' veggie chicken nuggets, which are to die for. If only Empire Wok delivered to Lark Street!

On the other side of the spectrum is the health food camp where the focus is on organics, raw foods and clean living. I'm not sure that it's realistic to expect the Capital District to support this type of focused venture. This is not to say that upstate New Yorkers aren't health conscious, but the fact that we're surrounded by an ocean of local agriculture lends itself less to vegetarianism and more to the locavore movement. Personally, these days I do eat some meat and am more concerned with sustainability and humane practices than I am with the presence or absence of animal products. I have to assume that other people my age are experiencing the same evolution.

It would be so wonderful to recreate the Shades of Green vibe in a larger space where there could be some omnivorous offerings alongside the vegetarian dishes. This is perhaps the most commercially viable business model: really good vegetarian food with a few equally good non-vegetarian options. A little something for everyone. If I had the real estate and the means, I'd do it in an instant.

Does a place like this already exist in the Capital Region? Have I missed it? If you know about it, please, pass it on!

Leigh Cummings blogs about her misadventures on public transportation (among other things). You can also find her on The Twitters: @leighcummings.

More Leigh on the Soapbox:
+ The Fantasy Lark Street
+ Pride in Albany

photo: Sebastien Barre

Comments

Have you tried any of the non-sweets at X's to O's in Troy? While they specialize in baked goods, they've been expanding their menu to include savory items as well.

When I'm out and looking for quick, cheap, healthy food, I always wish I could just get a bowl of vegetable miso soup over brown rice from Shades of Green.

All Good Bakery has great vegetarian food, open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

Also, there's a vegan restaurant in Delmar (where Java Jazz used to be) that has all the fake meat options. I like fake meat, but I don't think a vegan restaurant will make it around here unless it also includes healthy, vegetable based options.

Have you checked out All Good Bakers? I'm surprised they didn't get a mention in here. Yes, they're only open a few days a week (for now) - but it is a great atmosphere and they make great food. It's funny that you mentioned a tempeh reuben...All Good featured a seitan reuben on their menu this weekend!

The next best thing for me was Shake Shake Mama's in Troy which thankfully opened around the time Shades of Green was ending. We haven't had that for some time now either.

The vegan bakery here does food but not on the same scale as SoG, no smoothies..

Definitely a hole to be filled here.

There's an Albany health food restaurant that pre-dated Shades of Green that I miss terribly. It was open in the very early 90s and probably back into the 80s before I was in the area. Unfortunately the name escapes me at the moment....maybe some of your readers remember it too. It was on lower Washington/Western... across from the YMCA. It wasn't completely vegetarian but mostly veg. I LOVED and still miss their Mexicali Sandwich. Yum.. The owner -- Alissa? Melissa? -- was really sweet. She was also known for her Thanksgiving sandwiches, cold fruit soups, and veggie chili with tempeh bits. Man I miss this place.

Just yesterday I was told that a new vegetarian cafe is opening where Scratch Bakery stood. and alongside Dino's Pizza is Lifestyle Vegetarian Juice Bar that will be adding soups and sandwiches soon. and yes, All Good, All Good, All Good. Did I mention All Good?

I need to have a meat option just about everywhere I go, but one place where I will gladly eat and there is never any meat option is Parivar spice shop. It's a small kitchen in the back of the shop, and it might be more ethnic than what you're looking for, but their dishes are all hearty and filling (and inexpensive) and pleases even the meat lover like myself.

Parivar.

It's 100% vegetarian, and the dishes are so unique, interesting and flavorful, all but the most die hard carnivores are unlikely to even notice that nothing contains meat. They are closed on Mondays, but still keep better hours than All Good Bakers.

AGB by the way speaks not just to the vegetarian, but those who are interested more in sustainable and local agriculture.

On the Asian front, I was talking with Lanny at Ala Shanghai about the possibilities of a multi-course vegetarian banquet. Actually it was his idea, but it's something we could pursue further.

Naturally, there is also Chipotle. It's not health food. But vegetarians could do worse than a burrito with brown rice, black beans, guac, sour cream and cheese made from the milk of cows that were not treated with rBST, and salsa. Their beans are increasingly organic, and in season some of their produce comes from within a days drive. And while they aren't local, we've now got a bunch of 'em.

But the only place that might come close to the vibe you are looking for is AGB. You just need them to move into a slightly bigger space and increase their hours. Maybe they need to take on a co-op model and start using a staff of volunteers who trade their precious labor for a marginal discount.

I think strictly vegetarian/vegan restaurants that exist for the point of being vegetarian/vegan are a bit silly and, around here, probably doomed to fail. I think a better idea is to encourage established and successful eateries to offer more vegetarian option if you are into that sort of thing.

Lil' Buddha tea on Lark Street has food, and it's 100% vegetarian, if not vegan. Really good yummy concoctions, and even brunchy things on weekend afternoons.

I miss Shades of Green. The sauteed veggies over brown rice were so simple, but soooo good. And the mozzarella and pesto sandwich! I'm not a vegetarian but ate there at least twice a week on my lunch hour. I have not been able to find anything like it. What happened to the owners? Are they still local?

I miss Shades of Green. Especially when I am sick. It was my ultimate comfort food.

I think Elissa's shop on Lark has "i miss shades of green" pins that always make me chuckle and miss shades of green.

The Loving Cafe (Delmar vegan restaurant).

I was underwhelmed by The Loving Cafe when I first visited it by accident - I was hoping to get a nirvana wrap from Java Jazz. They were still remodeling the place, but open for business.

I remember it as being overpriced and unable to hold a candle to the vegetarian options available at most "non-vegan/vegetarian" restaurants in the area.

Perhaps they've improved, but I won't step in the place again until a friend, or perhaps Albany Jane (or another local food blogger) gives it a try.

@ Dina - Oh my we loved that joint. We went there all the time in the late 80s / early 90s. It was called Nature's Way.

How about the Moon and River cafe is Schenectady?
It's not entirely veg, but they do have a vegan Ruben (and a smoked tofu one!), the atmosphere is fantastic, and I've always had a really good experience.
They even have their whole menu in pdf, which I wish all eateries would take the time to do.
http://www.moonandrivercafe.com/

I agree with Mr. Dave. More restaurants should add vegetarian/vegan items to their menus. Like New World Bistro for instance. They always have at least 2 vegetarian entrees and their home made seitan is delicious. Sandwich places can do this too...its not that hard to come up with a yummy vegan sandwich to round out your menu.
I don't see why restaurants don't do this! By adding some vegetarian items they are only going to open themselves up to more potential business with more customers who previously couldn't dine at their restaurant.

What I wouldn't do for a Le Pain Quotidien in the area....

Frankly, the best I can do around here is to get a salad or sushi at Fresh Market. The prepared salads are good too...try the cranberry-broccoli coleslaw.

Dennis the owner of shades of green was also the nicest owner I've come across. Good food and good people. Yes a Le Pain Quotidien would be great around here. Also, does anyone remember XO cafe that used to be on Madison. They had great veg. options and a great milk tea with tapioca. It would be great if HWFC did a spread like they do at the Saratoga coop. The food at the Saratoga coop is delicious.

Back in the late 80's and early 90's there was also Mother Earth's Cafe at the corner of Western & Quail (hard to believe, eh?), and the same owner had a place way down Madison, just past Grand that was a bit more coffeehouse-ish. Both places had live music, art shows, and served up pretty decent vegetarian food with a distinctly hippie vibe. I especially miss the burrito deluxe at Shades.

Thanks for the shout outs! We're trying hard to provide a solid vegan/vegetarian menu, but agree we need more accessible hours and a wider range of choices. Love the idea of a Coop DB, it's something we've thought about for a long while. We are working on plans to make all of these improvements possible! We're closed up for the Holidays (visiting family), but we'll return the first weekend in January, and hope to see lots of you at the Albany Wine & Dine for the Arts Fest Jan 13/14 where all of our tastings will be vegetarian. We're contemplating joining the Mac & Cheese bowl in Feb. with a killer, totally vegetarian recipe (we've called to see if there are still slots left). We loved Shades of Green too!

I concur with Mr Dave and Elise that restaurants need to offer more vegetarian/vegan options. It really shouldn't be so difficult...

Leigh! This post is so perfect!

And yes! There are "I Crave Shades of Green" pins at Elissa's shop on Lark Street. There's even a little drawing on them of that special bowl of brown rice and veggies.

@Dina: The vegetarian restaurant that was on Central Avenue (nearby the Social Justice Center and LaZeez) in the 1980s was called Ribbon Grass. It was a great restaurant.

I remember Mother Earth very well. I used to love their generous bowl of Spanish Rice and their falafel was quite good, too.

For some reason I had no idea that AGB had sandwiches. I'm so excited to try them!!

-R.
The owner of the late Mother Earth's and Half Moon Cafe runs the Moon & River Cafe in Schenectady.

Here's an old profile of the owner of Shades of Green:

http://www.hwfc.com/CoopScoop/Jan07/staffprofile.html

It also should be noted that DP dough in troy now offers a VEGAN calzone made with Daiya cheese...be still my beating vegan heart.

Lil Buddha on Lark has an impressive vegan menu, and don't forget about Honest Weight when you are looking to grab a bite to go :) I'm all for more vegetarian & veggie-filled eateries!

While I can appreciate the cachet of an all veg cafe, I also vote for more mainstream restaurants upping their game on vegetarian and even vegan options. (Not just a token vegie burger.) It's limiting for me as a vegetarian to lunch with friends at many places they are likely to pick for casual dining.

Dear Friends,

So many positive comments regarding Shades of Green. If you're missing some of its signature tastes, the driving force behind its cuisine in the later three or four years of the restaurant's existence (Rada) has been operating Vegan Creations for the past six years. Rada developed our seitan recipe and perfected a number of her delicacies while working for Dennis. In addition to seitan, you can find our five varieties of hummus, pastry, and cookies a the Troy Farmer's Market every Saturday, the Honest Weight Coop, and a number of other area retail outlets. Stop by and see us, it's all good.

Thanks for the mentions friends! I unfortunately moved here right after Shades of Green closed....I've heard many great things though! We do currently have some grab and go items like sandwiches, salads, and soups on a rotating weekly special basis. We're working on expanding our savory items within our current means so we can keep up with our daily baking as well. We also have brunch every other Saturday and post the dates on our facebook/twitter, menu window sign and on our in house menu. We just had brunch this past Saturday and had gingerbread pancakes with caramelized apples, roasted sweet potatoes, and a kale/cranberry salad with a maple vinaigrette (and it was all gluten free). Last week our sandwich specials were tempeh reubens, eggplant caponata and we had curried split pea soup. This week we have tofu mcyummies, roasted portobello/red pepper sandwiches with a sundried tomato spread, and tomato basil soup with wild rice. We've got huge plans for this bakery and look forward to what's to come! Come check us out. xoxo

@Dina, Nature's Way had the most amazing vegetable soup, and I still fondly remember their tuna sandwich. I haven't tasted anything close to either one.

Marcie Shemaria Gardner ( who currently manages the Chatham Real Food Coop) and I owned Ribbon Grass Restaurant on Central Ave ( currently the Social Justice Center) from 1975-82. It was a totally vegetarian restaurant. ( just for some veggie restaurant history). I currently own New World Bistro Bar on Delaware Ave in Albany, where we serve many vegetarian as well as vegan menu items.

Annette, you won't believe this, but Marcie Gardner is my ex-boyfriend's stepfather's sister - I knew she managed the Chatham Coop, but had no idea she owned/ran a restaurant w/ you here in Albany! I can't remember if I met her during our 6 year dating tenure (this was about 20 years ago in NC), but her brother Gary was very sweet and is still married to my ex's mom in Fla. Small world.....

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