Restaurant review: It's Only Natural Restaurant in Middletown

If I may make a suggestion, next time you need to hit the post-holiday digestive reset button, head out to It's Only Natural restaurant, a longtime vegetarian enclave in Middletown. Or, just go if you like inventive, well-presented flavorful cuisine in a funky, cozy space.

After days of ham, turkey, and rum balls (repeat), my husband and I couldn't fathom eating another darn thing - ever again. And we certainly didn't want to cook another darn thing after hosting Thanksgiving at our house. Enter ION, where vegetables, soy protein and huge flavor rule supreme. Plus, we hadn't dined there in ages. We were saved.

Where else can you grab two apps and not feel the slightest bit guilty about eating every last crumb of them? When you've got items like the classic Bread and Spread - the house whole-wheat bread served with carrot miso spread on the side - and Cheddar Jalepeno Pierogis - prepped with apple butter, and served with tofu sour cream - it's very easy to justify dessert (more on that later).

And while it's perfectly natural to want soft dairy butter to go with the ultimate whole-wheat bread (crisp edges with firm interior, perfect for spreading), you'll never miss it. The carrot-miso spread is enjoyable on two fronts: bits of carrot therein provide subtle texture, and the miso offers a mild soy-salty zip.

As for the pierogis, I'm a tough sell on them as a New Britski Polish gal, but ION's take on them is well-executed. While I enjoyed the crispy texture of ION's 'rog, and while the filling was smooth and palatable, the jalapeno heat - which kicked in after a sec - saved the app from an initially underwhelming first bite.

Dinnertime ended up being its own Thanksgiving feast, thanks to ample portions and loads of clever, seasonal ingredients. The Sweet Potato Enchilada is a big standout here. South of the border cuisine takes a decidedely New England turn that's so satisfying, it should join mac and cheese in the Comfort Food Hall of Fame. As much as I like sweet potato, a heap of them can get a little dull after a few forkfuls. Not so when it's accented with red mole sauce, which adds a delicious tang to this classic ION dish. It's served with rice and beans, and while the beans are a bit of a bore, they go nicely with the sweet potato.

Speaking of comfort foods, ION's Noodle Bowl, or The Official Cure For What Ails You, could be a contender. A huge helping of perfectly tender whole-wheat noodles meets with veggie dumplings and generous helpings of carrot and broccoli in a spectacular ginger-tamari broth. Chicken stock seems mighty dull when you realize what always-wonderful ginger and soy sauce can do in a dish.

Another belly-buster is the ION cheeseburger, which I ordered on the house wheat bread (also available on a wrap). ION's veggie burger is one of the best I've ever had - it's well blended (read: no giant hunks of veg or mushroom) but doesn't turn to mush on contact with bread. Cheddar cheese (vegan cheese options available, too) brings bun and burger together to create a nicely balanced bite. Bonus round? The burger comes with crisp sweet potato fries piled next to it, served with hickory-smoked ketchup.

With a decent amount of time between waitress visits, we managed to muster up some appetite for dessert. What ION calls Velvet Cake on its menu is a red-velvet-esque delight (I suspect they leave out the not-at-all natural red dye that's an ingredient in red velvet cake). Vanilla frosted, moist and not too sweet but still sweet enough, you'll never know this baby is vegan. I've found a dangerous dietary loophole here, people.

Indeed, I've found several dietary loopholes at ION. Should I ever get up the gumption to actually learn how to make beans and veggies sing like these guys do, I could easily do more than Meatless Mondays. In the meantime, it's good to know the potential joys of future vegetarian culinary adventures.

It's Only Natural Restaurant

386 Main St., Middletown (inside the Main Street Market building)
(860) 346-9210

Cuisine: Vegetarian and vegan entrees, apps, salads, sandwiches, and desserts. Several local beers and wines available, as well as smoothies and a slew of carrot-juice beverages.

Atmosphere: Lots of tables fill an art-laden space. Great use of color and lighting make for a cozy experience. Local art available for sale near entrance.

Service: Pleasant, well-informed, a little lackadaisical

Prices: Not super cheap; entrees are $14; sandwiches average around $12; many apps priced at $10.

Handicap access: Ramps abound inside Main Street Market building; restaurant interior is spacious.

Credit cards: All majors.


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