Veg out: Festival, bistro have it all

Still think tofu is tasteless? Well, it's almost time to learn how flavorful a meat-free diet can be at the 9th Annual Vegetarian Festival, scheduled for Saturday, September 24 at Lee Park. (I missed it last year, which is why I wanted to print this "save-the-date" reminder a week early.)

With 100 exhibitors and 8,000 expected visitors, this free health-fest is said to be the second largest of its kind in the country. Cooking demos, restaurant and natural food booths, health and nutrition consultations, activities for kids, live music, and a vegetarian singles table are just a few of the healthy highlights.

If you can't wait 'til the 24th, you can at least get your peas at the new French bistro, Petit Pois ("Little Pea"), which opened last weekend in the Downtown Mall's Central Place next to Zocalo. Despite its vegetable-centric name, Petit Pois is French, and thus the menu stars many non-vegetarian French classics.

Appetizers, which average $6, include a duck, chicken liver, and pork terrine, a charcuterie plate, steak tartare, escargots and moules (mussels) à la marinière. French onion soup and a cheese plate round out the starters. Under $20 entrées feature traditional recipes like coq au vin; a seared onglet (hanger steak) with frites, shallots and a red wine sauce; a braised and roasted rabbit; and the seafood soup from Provencale known worldwide as bouillabaisse (from boui abaisso or, "boil and press").

To refresh your memory, Petit Pois is the brainchild of business partners and chefs Brice Cunningham and Brian Helleberg, who work side-by-side at Fleurie, the elegant, romantic French restaurant located just a few blocks away on Third Street.

"With Petit Pois, we wanted to offer the same quality and basic taste of Fleurie, but with more affordable, blue collar French food," Cunningham said just hours before opening Friday, September 9.

Along with the price difference, Fleurie fans will also notice a stark difference in style. With its sleek black banquette, aluminum tables and chairs, metallic porcelain wall tiles, and windows lined with pots of wheat grass, Petis Pois is conservative Fleurie's sleek, modern little sister.

Both restaurants were built by Al Lundgren, who happens to adore France and French food. Lundgren and his team managed to completely transform the space formerly known as Baja Rapido (and, for a month or so, Fresco) in just about two months. Chef Brian Jones, who worked with Helleberg's brother in Telluride as well as at Keswick, is in charge of Petit Pois' brand new kitchen, which is cooking dinner only for the time being.


Aroma's Café #2 falls through

 Last week Dish reported on the likelihood of Aroma's Café opening a much-anticipated, more central second location this fall in the Millmont Shops. But on Friday, September 9, Aroma's owner Hassan Kaisoum realized that a handshake and a key to the plaza's corner spot (formerly leased by Bonvivant gift shop) did not translate into a done deal.

"They told me everything from my restaurant concept to my business plan looked fantastic," an embittered Kaisoum says, "and then out of the blue they say they can't lease it to me." He already had an architect working on the design and was hoping to sign a lease last week when the deal fell through.

According to the property manager, David Cooke, Kaisoum misunderstood the situation or was overly optimistic.

"We had discussions with Aroma's as a potential tenant, but there was never any promise," Cooke explains, adding that they have a number of parties interested in the space. Apparently, it's common practice to give out keys and blueprints to interested business owners.

According to Kaisoum, the five-partner group that owns the plaza gave Aroma's the last-minute boot when Boston Beanery franchise owners expressed interest in leasing the Sloan's Restaurant space in the same plaza.

"They were afraid of my good reputation and of the competition," Kaisoum says. However, Cooke says no lease has been signed for either space, so he cannot comment on the claim.

Kaisoum's Moroccan-Mediterranean delights can still be enjoyed for lunch or catering at his original location on Natural Resources Drive, and as for Aroma's #2, we'll just have to keep our fingers crossed for another space.

Last year's varied veggie offerings

Petit Pois is up and running.