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Main Street Grill serves up tasty natural fare without pretension. 

The Real Deal

Dining at the Main Street Grill reminds me that, not long ago, vegetarian or natural food restaurants were fringe establishments staffed by scruffy young people with refreshing radical ideas. Now, the natural food movement is so trendy that adjectives like "free-range," "organic," and "local" appear regularly on the most mainstream menus. Meanwhile, natural food restaurants feature increasingly refined and artful three-dimensional presentations with splashes of brightly colored sauces and expensive entrees. In this time of change where rough-around-the-edges eateries with wholesome vegetarian cuisine are a dying breed, the Main Street Grill is an exceptional survivor.

It's hard to describe the feel of this place. It's artsy but not "decorated" or refined. It's a tad scruffy but not exactly dingy. It's wholesome but not overbearingly healthy. Aged hippies pick over a slice of vegan German chocolate cake ($2.75), art students with funny glasses take in a painting called "Buddha Fridge," a scruffy guy that looks like a character from a Tom Waits ballad swills a Pabst Blue Ribbon ($1.95) at the bar, while Tobacco Row yuppies quaff a Snow Goose Winter Ale ($2.95) — it's a mixed clientele.

The regular menu here relies on several solid building blocks: baba ganouj, refried beans, hummus, a delicious green olive and walnut relish, and "lahmajune," described as an Armenian spread of tomato paste, mint and garlic. These spreads reappear throughout the menu in various forms and fortunately, with the possible exception of the hummus which is a tad dry and a little bland, they are all very good. For starters, the spreads can be ordered individually with warmed whole-wheat pita ($2.95) or together as a mezze platter ($5.50).

The same spreads also comprise the ingredients of various pita sandwiches dubbed "pacos." I was apprehensive about the combination of refried beans, lahmajune, olive walnut relish and feta in the Armenian paco ($4.95), but the robust flavors made for an exceptionally satisfying and hearty sandwich, if not a terribly refined one.

In the specials department, about $9 buys an entrée, salad and a soup — and someone in the kitchen has a knack for soups. A "garlic and greens" soup was intense with toasted garlic, hearty greens and root vegetables. A "butternut squash and leek" soup was velvety smooth with a rich aroma spiked with nutmeg, and a "ginger and two potato" soup was outstanding in both flavor and texture. Not a bad start for a $9 meal. The salads are offered with a variety of good dressings one of which, the Japanese ginger, is exceptional.

In keeping with the restaurant's style, the specials are creative and hearty dishes nicely prepared but presented without flourish. "Country moussaka" was essentially ratatouille baked with a béchamel topping. Mushroom strudel was a savory button mushroom and ricotta mix with a phyllo topping, and a roasted vegetable burrito included a variety of vegetables and beans and had a nice smoky flavor, perhaps from chipotle chili.

Desserts run the gamut from the all-too-familiar carrot cake to the unique vegan German chocolate cake, which tastes surprisingly decadent. A damson plum pound cake was good, but perhaps the best dessert I've had at the Main Street Grill was an ice cream and cookie sandwich that I stumbled upon last year but have yet to see return.

In searching to best describe this food, for some reason, the word "real" comes to mind. Perhaps it's because these simple, non-processed ingredients aren't subjected to the latest trends at the hands of over-eager culinary school graduates, or perhaps it's because these dishes seem like something you might actually make at home with the assistance of a good cookbook. Either way, it's refreshing restaurant food and I recommend it. I know some of you won't like this place, but that's OK. You know who you are, and you'll steer clear no matter what I
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