The Early Word: Otarian
Otarian invites you to judge its food by its cover.
If you've ever stopped to wonder what a restaurant created in a joint effort between some Simpsons writers, a bored McDonald's mid-level executive, and a rogue band of profit-minded Hare Krishnas might look like, then Otarian might be for you.
Otarian bills itself as the world's first low-carbon restaurant, and serves an entirely vegetarian menu. It is also the first outpost of a planned chain, and thus can be described as the world's first low-carbon, vegetarian fast-food chain. A couple of weeks ago, Radhika Oswal, the founder of Otarian, told us about her vision for the Bleecker Street restaurant (though she was less generous with details about her own remarkably high-carbon lifestyle).
And Otarian is indeed a vision, a bright, relentlessly cheerful place where an LCD screen broadcasts vegetarian propaganda on endless loop ("the world's livestock create 13 billion tons of manure -- that's 35,616 Empire State Buildings!"), cashiers end each transaction with "thank-you for saving the world, one Otarian meal at a time!", and all of the food packaging informs you that it can be composted. Top 40 tunes, the kind you might listen to in a high school weight room, are broadcast from the speakers.
The Tandoori wrap, unwrapped.
Ordering off of Otarian's menu is a slightly paradoxical affair: everything is packaged just like it would be in a regular fast-food restaurant, and workers slide the burgers, wraps, and other items down a metal slide, just like they do at McDonald's. The Tandoori mushroom and paneer wrap, for example, is packaged almost exactly like a McDonald's apple pie, yet its packaging is compostable.
And unlike at McDonald's, everything on Otarian's menu advertises its carbon footprint and that of its meat equivalent. The Tandoori wrap's carbon footprint is .91 kg, compared with the 2.03 kg a toasted beef burrito inflicts upon the planet. The wrap's $7.25 price tag is higher than anything found under the Golden Arches -- Otarian may bill its menu as vegetarian fast-food, but its prices betray its loftier aspirations. Lunch for two people came to $29.51; considering that you can get a similar deal at places with prix fixe menus and tablecloths, it was a bit difficult to swallow.
Fortunately, the food was not. Admittedly, we didn't have the highest expectations for the restaurant's brand of "global" cuisine, which is a mishmash of wraps, veggie burgers, pastas, and vaguely Indian-inspired dishes. But we were still pleasantly surprised by both the quality of the ingredients and their generally successful transformation into things you'd actually want to eat.
The vegan spinach and pea soup ($6.45 for a small) was thick, hearty, and well-seasoned, and tasted exceedingly fresh. It had a rich, vegetal funk to it, and was as good a pea soup as you can hope for at any restaurant, fast-food, vegetarian, or otherwise.
The aforementioned Tandoori wrap was similarly satisfying, if a bit shy with actual Indian spices. But the paneer was pleasingly dense and slightly tart, and the flatbread was substantial, flakey, and had character. The wrap came with a cucumber dipping sauce, which was weirdly metallic -- a better option was just to dip the sandwich in the pea soup.
Otarian offers three veggie burgers. The Tex Mex ($7.95) most closely approximates the kind of meaty excess of an actual burger (though its carbon footprint is 1.59kg, compared to a Tex Mex beef burger's 2.28 kg), and comes loaded with guac, salsa, barbecue sauce, cheese, and lettuce. Squished between a whole-wheat bun, it was junky and satisfying, kind of a cross between a Sloppy Joe, a taco, and a burger. Carnivores would no doubt scoff at it, but vegetarians, small children, or drunks in need of something substantial to fill their stomachs will most likely treat it as a grease-stained love letter sent from a benevolent god.
The beet and feta salad ($6.45 for a small) came with a balsamic dressing and was, without a doubt, the freshest salad ever served within the confines of a fast-food establishment. It was composed of arugula, chunks of roasted beets, and cubes of feta; because its ingredients were so fresh, simple, and well-proportioned, the salad was more or less a no-fail proposition. The balsamic vinegar was surprisingly balanced, neither too sweet nor too tart.
No matter what you eat at Otarian, Otarian won't let you forget where you're eating it. Go to wipe your mouth, and the napkin happily reminds you that "If Americans gave up meat, we could feed 1 billion Africans on the grain saved." Clear the food from your tray, and its paper liner tells you "It's what the planet would order." Glance up from your food, and you see statistics about cow shit and skyscrapers. And when you go to throw away the detritus of your meal, you're reminded that its destination is some fantastically large compost heap.
It's difficult to know if the people who eat at Otarian are committed vegetarians, avid environmentalists, or just people who happen to be walking down Bleecker Street and feel a sense of acceptance from the sign on the door that shouts "Thank goodness you're here! Your planet needs you!" Whatever the case, they've come to a fast-food restaurant whose most notable difference from its counterparts is this: it tries to lure in customers by appealing to their sense of guilt.
Forget whether or not the food is any good, or whether it's vegetarian. Otarian wants you to swallow its message whole, and to come back for seconds. Its message is that the planet needs you to eat there, but really, what Otarian needs is your cash. And in that respect, no matter the carbon footprint, it's really no different from McDonald's, after all.
Pea and spinach soup. Thick, green, vegan.
Wipe your mouth on vegetarian propaganda.
No job too small.
...As you puff, puff, puff your way to the gas station!
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