Fifty Dollar Dinner

photo/Hannah Joyce McCain

Green Elephant Vegetarian Bistro
608 Congress St., Portland

At the Green Elephant Vegetarian Bistro in downtown Portland, the only signs of opulence are two chandeliers. Minus those gaudy light fixtures — and, of course, the tables full of happy, chattering customers — the space could be a yoga studio: wooden floors, sandy brick walls, open floorplan. The atmosphere mirrors the menu: healthy, modern, pan-Asian vegetarian dishes. It’s ascetic food for yogis seeking a “mindful dining” experience, as the restaurant’s website puts it, but you don’t have to be enlightened to dine there: “We invite you to join us with your best formal attire or in your favorite pajamas,” the site says.

My dining companion and I started with an order of chive dumplings ($8) from the specials board, paired with a glass of Birichino Vin Gris ($8), a peach-colored rosé. The rosé was crisp, dry, and almost flavorless (my wine-tasting notes: “Tastes like water, with subtle hints of wine.”). The appetizer was also underwhelming — chewy, sticky, thick rice-flour dumplings wrapped around boiled chives. They tasted healthy (read: bland), and eight bucks seems like several bucks too much for three smallish dumplings.

Our entrées were more successful, both filling and flavorful. The green curry with tofu ($16) had a creamy coconut-milk base enlivened by a spicy kick (the curry starts at two on the four-level heat index; we opted for level three). No vegetable was spared in the making of this dish. It was loaded with everything from bok choy to bell peppers, and topped with an attractive dash of micro-greens. The fried tofu provided the protein and jasmine brown rice lent the dish its bulk.

We also had the local mushroom rice bowl ($15). Mushrooms are a fantastic way to bring a meaty flavor and texture to vegetarian dishes. This bowl had shiitakes, oyster mushrooms, and some oddly chewy, fried enoki mushrooms. Like the curry, it also had plenty of vegetables and a bed of brown jasmine rice. It was satisfying in a comfort-food sort of way, but hardly exciting. It tasted like an easy weeknight dinner at home, when you realize you have a bunch of mushrooms in the fridge that are on their way out, so you whip up an impromptu stir-fry.

The simpler dishes on the menu can be replicated at home after a quick stop at the Asian market for some curry and a funny-looking vegetable or two. The Green Elephant is an ideal post-yoga dinner destination when you’re too tired to cook. Otherwise, stay home, save some money, and eat in your PJs.

— Hannah Joyce McCain