Sunday, March 19, 2017

Date Night: Ecotopia!

The second question everyone asks when they find out I'm a vegetarian (usually after some form of "Why?") is, "What about your husband?"  

The short answer is no, he is not vegetarian. The longer answer is: I became a vegetarian at 15.  I started dating Matt at 16.  So it's not like I dropped this bomb on him after our wedding.  When we married, I told him that he was welcome to eat meat, but I wasn't going to cook it or clean up after it.  So at home, he is a vegetarian.  Our system works pretty well.  He complains to friends about his hardships, but honestly, he (usually) says he likes my cooking and has tried to become a vegetarian several times, especially five years ago when both our dads suffered serious heart problems within six months of each other.  He says that he just feels like Bruce, the shark in Finding Nemo, whenever he smells meat cooking.    

And one of the many incredibly sweet things he does is that he's always trying to find good vegetarian food for me.  So the other night when, for the first time in about two months, Skyler actually asked if she could baby-sit her siblings (praise the Lord for good big sisters!!!!), we headed out on a date.  Honestly, it's hard to find Korean food without meat.  Yes, they use tofu in their cuisine, but it's almost always accompanied by beef, pork, or seafood.  So our go-to for eating out here is Indian food since it's always easy to find vegetarian dishes.  There are two good places within about a mile of where we live.  But a week ago Saturday, Matt did some research and found that in Namcheon, about six subway stops away, there is an all-vegan restaurant, and it had rave reviews -- even from omnivores.  

It took forever to find the restaurant, even with the directions that were on their Facebook page, but we finally walked up to find it empty except for the proprietor and another woman (maybe the chef?).  They put their arms up in an "X" position and though smiling said, "No more food.  Free market day.  Many people here.  Food all gone."

Of course.  

Now let me back up a little.  That Saturday was kind of a weird day for me.  I'd gotten up early to make the vegan banana blueberry pancakes that I always make for breakfast on Saturdays, but we left shortly after to cheer on Lilly in a basketball tournament that lasted for most of the day.  So besides the pancake I started the day with, I had only eaten a couple cheese sticks, and a tiny portion of leftovers I scarfed down when we were finally home.  

So now, I was good and hungry.

No, no... I was hangry. I mean, I realize I said I'm not really making plans for this yearbut dinner?  I couldn't even plan on dinner?!!?!  Was it really so preposterous of me to think that I could say, "Tonight, I'm going to go out with my husband to this place and there will actually be food there."?!  To walk into a restaurant that was still open and think that, you know, maybe there'd be SOMETHING TO EAT?!?!?!

Matt led me, fuming, to a nearby convenience store where there were some tables to sit at and bought a couple drinks and a pack of Mentos.  "Want one?" He asked.

"I hate Mentos," I grumbled.  

"I'll get you something else if you want.  Can I interest you in some dried squid?  Kimchi?"

I was in no mood for his jokes.  "No.  I'm starved.  I want real food.  I want dinner."  By now it was after 7, so breakfast, my last real meal, was already roughly a million years ago according to my stomach. I finally caved and popped a couple Mentos into my mouth.

And you know, for all the bad rap high fructose corn syrup and food coloring get.... well, let's just say they have a time and place.  I started to think a little more clearly and went to a Facebook group I'm part of that is specifically for restaurants in Busan.  I searched Namcheon, and to my surprise, there was another vegetarian place.  According to the directions, it wasn't even far away.  We ventured out again, thinking that if nothing else, it was close to the subway, so we could always head to our neighborhood for Plan B (and hopefully the Mentos I'd eaten would keep me alive).

It didn't look promising at first, just another alley with myriad shops lit by neon and fluorescence.  But then I saw a little sign with a tree and the name "Ecotopia".  Just off the alley was the loveliest gem of a restaurant, with a small, walled garden, a chalkboard sign and a bucket of flowers.  The lights were on, and a warm glow emanated from within.  There were tables on the patio that looked perfect for a warmer evening, but since we needed jackets outside, we went inside to the almost-empty restaurant.  Though the sign still said "Open", after the night's adventures, I was feeling pessimistic.
"Open?  Yes?"  The woman nodded, yet I was sure she was going to tell me they were out of food or didn't serve Americans or something.

There was an iPad at the cash register with a menu in Korean, but she touched it quickly, and the language switched to English.  Glory be!
"What can I get you?" She asked.  I wanted to hug her.  All the options looked delicious, but I chose a vegetable gratin and Matt got the cress bibimbap.  We sat down at one of the nearby tables, but the woman said, "You can sit there!" indicating  a small room in the back with a cozy, cushioned bench that wrapped around half of a large table.  There was also a counter facing the window with chairs at it and a vase of flowers,
 but no one else was there.  It was quiet and intimate and perfect for conversation.  When the food arrived a short while later, we were both very happy with our selections.  
Everything was exceptionally delicious -- the gratin fully of garlicky roasted vegetables in a creamy but light sauce, the bibimbap full of flavor and accompanied with a lovely assortment of sides
 -- and we headed home with full stomachs and big smiles.
Our first date was butterflies and sweaty palms.  Don't get me wrong -- that was fun, too. But this date, over twenty years and a thousand inside jokes later, was laughter and conversation that I never want to end, the amazing (saintlike) patience of a man who won't quit until I'm happy, and will pose for 
and take silly pictures for my blog. It's also the knowledge that when I look into his eyes I'm looking at someone who knows me so well it's scary.  Like how a couple Mentos will actually -- sometimes anyway -- make me a better person.  

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