ITHACA, N.Y. -- It's the little restaurant that could. How it can, however, is truly difficult to explain.

Moosewood Restaurant is located in a small college town in upstate New York, on the way between very few places. Yet year after year for almost 18 years, the enchanted and the curious have gone out of their way to come here and eat.

The fare is vegetarian, yet the majority of its patrons are probably not vegetarians. It is operated by a collective -- 18 refugees from the '70s, hippies of the '90s -- yet an important goal is to make a profit.

It just doesn't seem likely that an offshoot of the counterculture could survive the materialistic '80s and, in fact, thrive, yet it has, and the proof is in the publication this month of the fourth in a continuing stream of cookbooks inspired by the restaurant.

The restaurant entered the consciousness of the outside world after Mollie Katzen, an original member of the collective, and Ten Speed Press brought out, in 1977, "Moosewood Cookbook," a compendium of quaint line drawings and hand-printed recipes adapted from Katzen's 4 1/2 years of cooking there.

Katzen and Ten Speed followed that in 1982 with "The Enchanted Broccoli Forest," which was done in the same style. By this time Katzen had long left the restaurant, but the connection remained among readers and Moosewood Restaurant was well on its way to amassing a cult following.

In 1987, the collective itself authored "New Recipes from Moosewood Restaurant" for Ten Speed. Now, with a mainstream publisher, Simon & Schuster, and with plans for yet another cookbook to follow, the collective has brought forth "Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant."

Moosewood has arrived, but it doesn't seem to have changed. It is perhaps the most famous, least known, most influential, least pretentious eating establishment in the country. It's a cult classic.

The restaurant is located in DeWitt Mall, a renovated downtown brick school building at the corner of East Seneca and North Cayuga streets. There is seating for slightly more than 50 people (another three dozen can be accommodated on the sidewalk terrace when the weather is nice), which is small as popular restaurants go but large enough that on a recent Sunday evening, the clientele seemed to include at least one of almost every kind.

Over along the front wall, below the large front windows was a man in a pin-striped suit. A table away under the ceiling fans was a diner in running shoes, shorts, sweat shirt and beard. Women in either jeans or the Laura Ashley look appeared equally comfortable and at home. There were bow ties and scarfs. Some diners appeared to be students or faculty from Cornell University, up on the hill, or Ithaca College, others local professionals or tradesmen (and women). No bowling teams, however, but nobody bowls on Sunday night.

The reason Moosehead seems to attract all kinds is that while the cuisine is vegetarian (though fish is served), it is also robust and full flavored with fresh herbs and freshly ground spices, not the tofu and bean sprouts that the uninitiated expect of vegetarian cooking. And, the menu is constantly changing and evolving; on no two days is the list of entrees alike.

Sunday night is ethnic night at Moosewood and the staff spends all day preparing for the one meal, while on the other six days both mid-day and evening meals are served. The chalkboard menu on the wall this particular Sunday night, derived from Middle Eastern cuisines, listed three entrees:

"Fritada espinaca {a spinach omelet served with fried eggplant, tomato/peppercorn relish, and orange and melon slices}, dolmas {zucchini and peppers stuffed with peppers, tomatoes, pine nuts and walnut pilaf, served with cucumbers in yogurt} and baked fish nic osia {with a tomato and herbs breading, served with fresh green beans, bulgar pilaf and a garnish of orange, lemon and melon slices}."

The menu had been planned by Laura Ward Branca, a self-described "African-Armenian American born in Brooklyn" who researched and wrote the "Armenian and Middle East" chapter in the new book. Each of the book's 18 cuisines (from "Africa South of the Sahara" to "Finland" and "Southeast Asia" to "New England," with many stops in between) was likewise handled by a member of the collective.

Branca, one of five menu planners, had spent time throughout the week deciding on a menu, adapting recipes, ordering produce and ingredients. "We keep track of the menus," says Branca, "and make new combinations every day. New dishes will be introduced on a Sunday, and if they're a hit, they'll show up in the general repertoire."

Ithaca is in the Finger Lakes region, an area of hills and gorges, wineries and farms, quite a few of which are organic. "We use locally grown produce whenever we can get it," she says. "It's possible to cook natural foods and not sacrifice taste. Our food is well seasoned, and we try to use fresh herbs whenever we can get them, and grind our own spices fresh as needed," which accounts for the full, satisfying flavor.

"We're very conscious of the quality of our food," says Branca. "Most of us are in our 30s and 40s and in very good health, and we eat it every day. If you want to make money, you sometimes have to sacrifice, but we try not to compromise" on quality. And, while quality is high, prices are very reasonable, with entrees under $10.

Then, how could such a place survive?

"We've worked hard at it," she says. "We don't know of anything that's comparable to what we're doing, that's had our success, but I hope there are somewhere."

Thus it is, that 18 years later, Moosewood Restaurant seems to be going better than ever, with another book in the works, even a potential deal to put together cooking videos.

"We've developed quite an interesting process of managing a business," says Branca, "trying to be socially conscious, creating a good environment for workers, giving a good product. I'm quite proud of what we do. It's really a labor of love."

That attitude apparently comes across not only to restaurant patrons, but also to distant fans who know Moosewood only through the cookbooks.

"People can tell from the books that's we're accessible," says Branca, "and call us all the time with questions: 'Hi, this is Vinnie from Long Island and I'm trying to make the eggplant casserole ... ' "

The following recipes from "Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant" approximate those of the entrees served one night in September.


(6 servings)

These fish fillets stay tender and moist while the exotically spiced bread-crumb topping gets crisp and golden. The cumin, coriander, garlic, lemon, and olive oil are flavors substantial enough to stand up against even a strong tasting fish like bluefish or fresh sardines, although scrod is recommended for those first trying the recipe.


1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

4 garlic cloves, pressed

Pinch of cayenne

2 teaspoons ground cumin seeds

1 teaspoon ground coriander seeds

Salt, to taste

3 cups whole-wheat bread crumbs

1/2 cup chopped fresh basil

TO FINISH:2 pounds firm, white, fish fillets

2 medium tomatoes, chopped

2 garlic cloves, pressed

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

Juice of 2 lemons (about 1/4 cup)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Lemon wedges for garnish

Heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet. Add the garlic and let it sizzle for a minute. Add the cayenne, cumin, coriander, and salt to taste. Stir for a minute more. Don't let the spices burn. Add the bread crumbs and stir so that they are blended with the spices and coated with the oil. Continue to saute', breaking up any lumps, until the bread crumbs are golden and crisp. Add the chopped basil and toss for another minute. Remove from the heat.

Rinse the fish fillets in cold water, pat them dry with paper towels, and place them, skin side down, in an oiled baking dish. Spread the chopped tomatoes evenly over the fish. Sprinkle on the garlic, parsley, and then the lemon juice. Add a little salt and pepper. Top with the seasoned bread crumbs, completely covering the fish.

Bake, uncovered, at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes, until the fish flakes easily with a fork. Garnish with lemon wedges.

Per serving: 412 calories, 40 gm protein, 16 gm carbohydrates, 21 gm fat, 3 gm saturated fat, 112 mg cholesterol, 255 mg sodium.

From "Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant," by the Moosewood Collective (Simon and Schuster, $16.95)

DOLMAS (Stuffed Vegetables)

(8 servings)

Dolma is a word commonly used for both stuffed vegetables and stuffed grape leaves, although sometimes stuffed grape leaves and cabbage are called "sarma." Dazzling red tomatoes, green and red peppers, green and yellow squash, filled with savory herbed pilaf of rice, pine nuts and walnuts, are simmered in a lemony tomato sauce. Tart homemade yogurt (madzoon) and plenty of lemon wedges make a good accompaniment. This recipe makes a large amount, enough for each person to have an assortment of two or three vegetables.

2 cups uncooked brown rice

1/4 cup olive oil, plus 1 tablespoon for the rice

Pinch of salt

2 large Spanish onions, chopped

6 large garlic cloves, pressed

2/3 cup chopped fresh basil

1 1/2 tablespoons dried basil

1 1/2 tablespoons dried marjoram

6 ounces tomato paste

2 28-ounce cans whole tomatoes, chopped, and their juice

3 to 4 bay leaves

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 or 3 medium zucchinis

6 large tomatoes

Juice of 1 1/2 lemons, plus extra for the tomatoes

3 green bell peppers

3 red bell peppers

2 cups walnuts, ground or chopped

1 to 2 cups pine nuts (or to taste)

Lemon wedges and chopped fresh parsley, for garnish

Saute' the rice in a tablespoon of olive oil for a couple of minutes. Add 4 cups water. Cover and bring to a boil. Add a pinch of salt. Simmer on very low heat until tender. The rice can be slightly underdone; it will continue to cook in the stuffed vegetables.

In 1/4 cup of olive oil, saute' the onions, garlic and herbs until the onions are just translucent. Remove half of the onions and set them aside for the pilaf filling. Add the tomato paste, the canned tomatoes and their juice, and the bay leaves to the remaining onions. Add salt and pepper to taste and simmer gently for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the vegetables to be stuffed. It is easiest to scoop them out using a small tool like a grapefruit spoon, an apple corer, or a vegetable reamer. Hold the vegetable firmly in your palm as you hollow it out, being careful not to break through the outer shell or bottom. Cut the zucchinis crosswise into sections about 3 inches tall. Hollow out each section, leaving a 1/4-inch shell on the sides and bottom. Cut holes about 2 inches in diameter in the tops of the tomatoes; discard the tops. Carefully scoop out the tomatoes. Chop the tomato pulp and add it to the sauce. Rub the insides of the tomato shells with a little salt and lemon juice (this will help them hold their shapes). Without removing the stems, slice the tops off the peppers about 1/2 inch down. Remove the seeds from the peppers and their tops, which will be used as lids.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the cooked rice, saute'ed onions, walnuts and pine nuts. Add the lemon juice and season to taste with salt and black pepper.

Stuff the vegetables with the pilaf. Put an inch of the sauce in the bottom of a large soup pot or Dutch oven and arrange the vegetables stuffed-side up. Put the lids on the peppers. If your pot is deep enough, add another layer of vegetables on top of the first. If not, you may need two pots. Pour the remaining sauce into the pan. It should nearly cover the vegetables. Otherwise, add a little water and lemon juice. Cover tightly and gently simmer the dolmas for 45 to 50 minutes, until tender.

Remove bay leaves and serve garnished with lemon wedges and parsley.

Per serving: 597 calories, 18 gm protein, 59 gm carbohydrates, 36 gm fat, 4 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 418 mg sodium.

From "Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant," by the Moosewood Collective (Simon and Schuster, $16.95)

FRITADA DE ESPINACA (Baked Spinach Omelet)

(10 servings)

This Sephardic version of a baked omelet is cut into squares and served cold by Turkish Jews on Saturday morning after Synagogue. It is traditionally made with kashkaval cheese, a sharp yellow cheese used in the Balkans and the Middle East. If you can find it at the market or a Middle Eastern food store, use it in place of the cheddar and Romano. Serve this fritada, warm or cold, as a main dish, side dish, or appetizer.

1 1/2 pounds fresh spinach (or 2 10-ounce packages frozen chopped spinach, defrosted)

1/2 cup matzo meal or bread crumbs

2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese

6 eggs, thoroughly beaten

1 pound cottage, pot, farmer, or feta cheese (or a mixture)

1/2 cup grated Romano or Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for oiling pan

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, preferably freshly grated

If using fresh spinach, wash and stem it and then steam it until just soft. Drain it, squeezing out the excess liquid, and then chop it. If using frozen spinach, simply squeeze out all the excess liquid.

Set aside 1/4 cup of the matzo meal or bread crumbs and 1/4 cup of the cheddar cheese. In a large bowl, mix the spinach thoroughly with the rest of the ingredients.

Oil a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Dust the bottom of the pan with the reserved matzo meal. Spread the spinach mixture evenly in the pan. Sprinkle the top with the reserved cheddar. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 45 minutes to an hour, until the top is golden and firm to the touch.

Per serving: 253 calories, 19 gm protein, 6 gm carbohydrates, 17 gm fat, 8 gm saturated fat, 199 mg cholesterol, 523 mg sodium.

From "Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant," by the Moosewood Collective (Simon and Schuster, $16.95)