One Great Plate: Italian Farmhouse Panini

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:15

    Tonia Guffey, the mixologist at the East Village’s Counter, hands me a napkin while commenting on how the Italian Farmhouse Panini ($14) that I’m 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 shouldn’t be wiping my fingers on; they would be much better off in my mouth. Food this tasty isn’t to be wasted on napkins.

    “It’s 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 wouldn’t 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 Amy’s Bread. Generously portioned—so much so that it’s served in thirds, along with some nicely dressed salad greens—I mention that I’ve never managed to finish the sandwich in one sitting. “I can eat the whole thing,” Guffey says, definitively, while preparing the restaurant’s copious organic cocktail garnishes. Instilled with her confidence, I not only clean my plate but also do so in embarrassingly quick fashion.

    “It’s 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, it’s 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 isn’t 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 it’s 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 doesn’t 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 doesn’t necessarily mean low calorie. “It’s better [for you] than what you’d eat at most restaurants,” says Siddons. “But it’s not a salad.”Yet, the dish is high in fiber, protein and those omega-3 fatty acids everyone loves, and you didn’t 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, [](