Green Elephant’s version of pad Thai. Courtesy photo

Green Elephant’s version of pad Thai. Courtesy photo

Editor’s Note: After about a year of Dining Out and telling readers about it, James H. Schwartz has decided to step down as restaurant critic for the Maine Sunday Telegram. Next week, we regret to say, will be his last review. Our Dine Out column will be on hiatus while we look for his replacement.

Vegetarian restaurants seem to fall into two categories: They’re either up-market and experimental (think heirloom smoked vegetables and 11-course vegetarian tasting menus) or laid-back and crunchy – more Birkenstocks than Blahniks.

Green Elephant, a self-styled “vegetarian bistro” in downtown Portland, is a completely different animal. Yes, it’s dynamic and hip, with the electric-green wall behind the bar and a veneer of rough-cut stone blocks dominating the other side of the dining room. But it’s also affordable (most entrees cost $15 or less). And it’s relaxed; an invitation on the restaurant’s website encourages you to come as you are, “with your best formal attire or in your favorite pajamas.”

Owners Dan Sriprasert and Bob Wongsaichua (who also own Boda, just down the street) say they have a mission to prepare consistently fresh “Asian-inspired vegetarian cuisine … with something for everyone.” If their fusion-style cooking isn’t groundbreaking, it’s certainly appealing, with enough tasty appetizers, curries, noodle dishes and meat-free stir-fries to satisfy a range of customers.

Take the Brussels sprouts ($7), one of many items on the menu that are both vegan and gluten-free. Crunchy on the outside with tender interiors, these sprouts are seasoned with tamari and brown sugar and have a pleasing, sweet finish.

Our waitress (who, like all the staff on duty, was terrific) said the fried sprouts remain one of the most popular appetizers – so popular that the recipe was included in “Portland, Maine Chef’s Table,” published in 2012.

In pointing out a few other favorites on the menu, the waitress recommended Soy Sticks, ($7), a vegan appetizer that looks for all the world like chicken drumsticks but turns out to be a soy alternative molded onto bamboo skewers in the vague shape of chicken legs, then fried and served with a garlic-chili-cilantro sauce. That sauce was good – thick like a duck sauce yet sharper and more complex – and the soy “meat” was an adventure in texture, the outside thin and crisp, like the skin on a piece of rotisserie chicken, and the inside dense and almost bready – similar to the stuffing you might find filling a holiday bird.

Heavy is probably the most accurate descriptor for the least satisfying appetizer we tried: Roti Canai. When you first see it on the menu the name of the dish looks frighteningly like “Root Canal,” but it turns out to be a soft, Indian-style flatbread that poses little threat to bridgework. The thin rounds of bread ($7) resemble paratha, with golden brown, barely charred crusts, but the bread tasted bland and unpleasantly oily. Roti Canai is served with a bowl of thin, vegetable curry dip flavored with mild spices. The dip was better on its own.

Main courses are more consistent and memorable. Peanut curry ($14) made with soy meat is slow-cooked in coconut milk and filled with chunks of sweet potatoes, chick peas, carrots and onions; it’s served with a mound of jasmine brown rice. Green Elephant’s kitchen excels at curry. This version is rich and thick and slightly sweet. Cloaked in sauce, the vegetables – particularly the sweet potatoes – are enormously satisfying. You can order the curry and most other entrees on the menu made mild (level 1) or spicy (level 4), but all seem fairly tame: We ordered level 2 and barely broke a sweat. Next time I’d throw caution to the wind and order a spicier version.

The dining room at Green Elephant.

The dining room at Green Elephant. Courtesy photos

The Panang curry ($15) was nearly as good. Also coconut milk-based, this curry is filled with a medley of vegetables with contrasting textures, from supple squash and Thai eggplant to crisp-tender red and green peppers, broccoli and carrots, plus a few cubes of tempeh, the cake-like soybean cubes that have a nutty flavor and a consistency as hearty as a slice of meat terrine. Like most Panang curries, Green Elephant’s is flavored with lime leaves, but there’s nothing citrusy or tart about the taste. It’s savory and balanced and smooth – a rustic, soothing vegetarian stew that’s ideal for a snowy night.

The best dish of the evening was Singapore noodles ($13), translucent strands of rice vermicelli stir-fried with egg, vegetables and tofu, seasoned with curry and finished with a sprinkling of fried shallots for extra crunch. That crunch was key – not only because of the flavor, but also because it helped differentiate this curry-scented dish from the others we tried.

A curry noodle dish called Siamese Dream. Courtesy photo

A curry noodle dish called Siamese Dream. Courtesy photo

In fact, that’s something to watch out for at Green Elephant. There’s a sameness to a few of the dishes here. True, some contain tofu and others tempeh. And the curries we tried had carrots while the noodles featured snow peas and bok choy. But many of the underlying flavors and spices are similar. (One friend had trouble remembering which dish he was eating … “Is this the Panang curry or a stir-fry?”) If you’re looking for greater variety, consider ordering dishes with markedly different spice levels or try one noodle dish, one curry and one order of the excellent Thai basil fried rice ($12).

Desserts, all $7, include a vegan chocolate orange mousse pie, a vegan soy-free combo of coconut ice cream and fried banana fritters, and a trio of sorbets with fresh fruit. Go with the sorbet. Why? Dinner here is seriously filling. That banana confection is too heavy – and too sweet. A refreshing spoonful of sorbet is all you’ll want for dessert.

Meat-free restaurants may not be for everyone. But Green Elephant comes close. It’s fun, congenial and healthful, an easy place for vegetarians, dedicated carnivores – and the rest of us – to enjoy.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines. He received the Maine Press Association’s First Place Critic’s Award in 2015.