Mi Lah: Who Needs Meat?

“We’re 99 percent vegan,” the smiling waitress at Mi Lah (218 16th St.) told us.

99 percent vegan?

“See, there’s this flatbread pizza on the lunch menu,” she continued. “With kalamata olives, spinach and feta cheese—yeah, real feta cheese. But it’s just so good, and so many people order it, that we couldn’t bring ourselves to take it off the menu.”

Mi Lah is Center City’s newest upscale vegetarian restaurant, a cozy BYOB just off bustling Walnut Street. The bi-level location is small and comfortable, a haven of healthful meals and friendly, attentive service tucked away at the corner of 16th and Chancellor streets. Its name comes from an Indian Buddhist term that denotes nature, harmony, happiness and kindness—and the place matches the name.

The emphasis here isn’t on mock meats. Chef Tyler Black transforms vegetables and grains into worthy centerpieces, attracting diners otherwise put off by the excess of soy-based faux chicken you’ll frequently find on other vegetarian menus.

A vegan restaurant is a great place to witness culinary technology at its finest; a chef is truly talented if he can create dishes that taste good, have good texture and are satisfying without use of common ingredients like butter, milk and meat. Veganism is restrictive, and as two carnivores, our expectations weren’t high.

We started a recent meal with soup (it was really, really cold outside): a carrot coconut ginger concoction and a spicy tomato bisque. The carrot soup was incredibly light and creamy, almost to the point of being airy. Tasty though it was, the kick it may have lacked was more than made up by the tomato bisque, which perfectly combined tomato, pepper and croutons into a balanced, flavorful dish. It was the perfect answer to the sub-freezing temperatures outside Mi Lah’s doors. Both were somehow created without actual cream—our aitress told us the chef often travels to food technology expos. 

The soup from both bowls was scraped up to the very last drop. And not because we weren’t left satisfied.

For entrées, we selected a wild rice and butternut squash risotto cake with walnuts, beets and apples, and a seared red curry polenta cake with spinach braised in coconut lime cream sauce. The risotto was hearty, the beets and baked apples adding just the right amount of sweetness. The polenta was creamy and complex, perfectly taking on the flavors of the ingredients it was prepared with.

Both dishes were huge and filling. Anyone fearing a trip to Mi Lah will leave them unsatisfied because it is vegetarian should put their concerns to rest immediately.

Other dinner options included a traditional pad thai; portabella musrooms with braised lentils and kale; and a roasted autumn vegetable tart with golden beet puree and fried sage. The lunch menu is made up of an attractive list of flatbread pizzas, sandwiches and salads. A true benefit to vegetarian restaurants like Mi Lah is that, simply because they're dealing with produce, menus must adjust to the season. 

As good as the dessert menu looked—and it looked good—we were simply too stuffed to partake. But with options like warm chocolate cake and a cupcake plate with a frequently changing selection of the sweet stuff, all for just $7, we’ll be back.

And next time, we’ll be sure to save room.

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