Tonia Guffey, the mixologist at the East Villages Counter, hands me a napkin while commenting on how the Italian Farmhouse Panini ($14) that Im taking part in is not clean eating: at least, not the way I am tearing into it with a glee I generally reserve for dishes of the carnivorous variety. I reach for the napkin before I can think better of it. I shouldnt be wiping my fingers on; they would be much better off in my mouth. Food this tasty isnt to be wasted on napkins.
Its one of the few things [on the menu] I have no desire to change, says Chef Giles Siddons, who inherited the dish when he took the reigns at the East Village vegetarian bistro a few months ago.There wouldnt be much to play with, as this is a simple sandwich with very few ingredients: a pâte of walnuts, lentils, onions, garlic and spices, slices of plum tomato and a smear of vegan rosemary aioli on warmed ciabatta from Amys Bread. Generously portionedso much so that its served in thirds, along with some nicely dressed salad greensI mention that Ive never managed to finish the sandwich in one sitting. I can eat the whole thing, Guffey says, definitively, while preparing the restaurants copious organic cocktail garnishes. Instilled with her confidence, I not only clean my plate but also do so in embarrassingly quick fashion.
Its not the most popular item on the menu, but the people who have it seem to really love it, adds Siddons. Being one of those smitten individuals, its hard to fathom how something so satisfying could not be adored by the masses. Perhaps its description as pâte is the culprit; after all, a dish that is traditionally minced meat and animal fat mixed to a smooth state isnt the type of dish to appeal to everyone to begin with. Factor in that vegetarian cuisine tends to fail spectacularly when trying to mimic animal proteins, and its understandable that the idea of vegan pâte might bring to mind all sorts of noxious flavors and textures. Pâte, as reinterpreted by vegetarians, merely refers to the process of mixing a minced protein (lentils) with a fat (walnuts), and is nothing to be wary of. In truth, the texture is closer to hummus than foie gras, and the flavor doesnt try to mimic animal variations at all, though both versions do share a salty sharpness and a slightly sweet, unctuous kick. Nothing this sinfully delicious comes without a price, as vegan doesnt necessarily mean low calorie. Its better [for you] than what youd eat at most restaurants, says Siddons. But its not a salad.Yet, the dish is high in fiber, protein and those omega-3 fatty acids everyone loves, and you didnt eat a single cute, delicious animal in the process. So screw the calorie count; no one can be totally perfect. But you can eat a perfect sandwich.
-- Counter 105 First Ave. (at E. 7th St.), 212-982-5870, [www.counternyc.com](http://www.counternyc.com).