Review: JFires’ Market Bistro in Waterloo

A woman once told me she didn’t eat anything with a face. That seemed a bit dramatic, so I jokingly asked, “What about a head of lettuce …” Hardy har har. She was not amused. That sort of summed up my impression of vegetarians for a while. Now, I’ve never been anti-vegetarian – I regularly consult my tattered Moosewood cookbooks. But as the locavore movement, with its emphasis on sourcing food close to home, suggests, there is room at the table for vegetarians, carnivores and omnivores.

But dining out can be challenging for vegetarians, mostly because meatless menu options are often limited to a solitary, bland dish or two. And few people are comfortable asking the chef to whip up something special to accommodate their meat-free diets.

At JFires’ Market Bistro in Waterloo, Ill., owner and chef Jennifer Pensoneau and executive chef John Sewell lay out their vegetarian menu in bold print, showing that they recognize there is more to eat in this world than the fish, fowl and mammals available on their other, more extensive menu (which includes some excellent-sounding wood-fired pizzas and Cajun-inspired dishes). Here, vegetarians can dine out with their meat-eating friends without feeling like they just stopped in from Mars for a bite to eat.

Both chefs trained in Louisiana at the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University and have traveled the world cooking. When Pensoneau wanted to settle down with her own restaurant, she convinced Sewell to move to Waterloo to run the kitchen. Along with an army of family and friends, the team renovated the beautiful old two-story farmhouse, once home to the Waterloo Winery, into its present state. Even with an Arby’s next door and Rural King Farm and Home across the street, the building retains its 19th-century charm. Come warmer weather, the trellised brick patio packs ’em in. Inside, four separate dining areas – two downstairs, two upstairs – offer four different dining experiences, from the intimate to the communal. Back in the kitchen, the specially built wood-fired brick oven pumps out not only pizzas but lamb chops, stuffed pork chops and whole bronzini.
As tempting as those meat dishes sounded, we were here for the vegetable-based options. Veggie fries seemed a good place to start while studying the menu of four entrées, two appetizers and one dessert. Frying anything in tempura batter always seems like a good idea, but deep-frying long, thick slices of battered rutabaga, parsnips and carrots is a very good idea, especially when they are brined in real maple syrup, further enhancing the sweet earthiness of the root vegetables. A fig and pecan salad succeeded on many levels, from the base of fresh greens (was that kale mixed in?) to the wide slices of Parmesan to the contrast of concentrated figgy sweetness and salty roasted pecans to the deftly drizzled balsamic vinegar dressing that complemented rather than drowned the ingredients.

Not everything was as successful. Unless salt is the sole criteria, a stir-fry of quinoa and vegetables (onion, red pepper and asparagus) lacked balance. The culprit: an overabundance of soy sauce. As creamy and delicious as it was, the side cup of red pepper soup worked more to tame the sodium blast than complement the dish. A dish of organic red beans and basmati rice underwhelmed the palate, eliciting an “It’s good, but …” response, proving to this meat-eater that there really is no substitute for bacon grease, tasso and smoked sausage. More heat and something smoky would have diminished the yawn factor.

A plate of baked yellow squash was more intriguing, with sautéed tempeh, dark opal basil and parsley interspersed between several slices of squash and a good slosh of – there’s that heat! – spicy marinara sauce and topped with mozzarella. The squash was tender and the tempeh slightly chewy, the basil a milder variety and the sauce zesty with fragrant oregano – texture and flavor were well balanced and in unison. Above all others, though, there’s mushroom lasagna, a substantial serving of house-made noodles, each layered with a riot of earthy mushroom flavor: velvety and buttery abalone, meaty shiitake, subtle oyster and the blank-slate button mushroom, useful for absorbing any flavor, like, say, the savory vegetable stock used to drench the dish in lieu of tomato sauce. Unlike the red beans and rice, adding meat would almost be a distraction.

A tofu dessert sounds about as appetizing as cardboard laced with Styrofoam. But chocolate crème brûlée made with the softer, smoother silken bean curd tastes as rich (well, almost) and creamy as the real thing, right down to the crackling burnt-sugar glaze. What it lacked in density it made up with guiltless pleasure (well, almost). While service is attentive and capable, the young staff needs more wine and cocktail education; every server should know what Sauvignon Blanc is or what sets apart two Merlots.

While we started out in search of a vegetarian menu, JFires’ cozy ambiance, wood-grilled meats and Cajun pastas will bring us back another time, maybe even with my straight-faced vegetarian acquaintance.

Don’t-Miss Dish: Veggie fries and mushroom lasagna.
Vibe: The 19th-century farmhouse and former winery offers a rustically appealing ambiance.
Entrée Prices: Vegetarian: $10 to $16; other entrées: $12 to $28
Where: JFires’ Market Bistro, 725 N. Market St., Waterloo, Ill., 618.939.7233
When: Lunch and dinner: Tue. to Thu. – 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Fri. and Sat. – 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sun. – 2 to 8 p.m.; Brunch: Sun. – 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.