It can be hard to be a vegetarian in college. And yet there is some good news for animal-friendly students. There is hope! Look no further than Zenith Antique shop in the South Side for some good culinary tofu creations. Patrons can come for the strange antiques and the odd restroom, and stay for the food.

Zenith is a 4800-square-foot industrial space that combines an antiques store, a vintage clothing shop, an art gallery and a vegetarian restaurant. The antiques shop is 13 years old, while the restaurant opened only seven years ago. Zenith’s restaurant started out as a small tea caf?, but after their success with appetizers, soups, and salads they transformed it into a full service restaurant with place settings and cloth tablecloths. Zenith used to be the only exclusively vegetarian restaurant in Pittsburgh, but now it competes against ventures such as Maggie’s Vegetarian Caf? in Oakland.

The ambience immediately charms customers as they walk into an attic-like house with every nook filled with dusty knick-knacks and vintage housewares. The dining area’s walls are covered with unique local art. The strange indie music matches the stenciled look of the contemporary-style paintings. The owner of Zenith takes pride in her unisex bathrooms, which she decorated herself. The newer restroom includes an overload of owls gazing down as customers relieve themselves.

Zenith's style and vision were spruced up this year by a new owner, who remains unnamed. She wants college students to hang out at a hip tea caf?, and is catering to young vegetarians. The venture is a family affair: her daughters help out as servers and she cooks up the meals from scratch. The last owner was a vegetarian so she created a vegetarian restaurant. Now the new owner carries on the tradition but gives the eatery a vegan spin. She creates pies and cakes from scratch, intended for the forgotten vegan sweet tooth. Local regulars take home multiple helpings of the scrumptious desserts every week.

When the cake arrived, the appearance was nothing more than a mundane slice of chocolate frosted bundt cake. [[The ultra-sweet chocolatey heaven of the cake makes one want to take more and more forkfuls would experience in the next few moments. Anyone consuming this cake who feels like vegan desserts are "Ew, no" will quickly gobble up those words.]] [WHAT IS THIS? -ajo]

Zenith also offers an extremely wide selection of black, green, white, red and herbal teas. It takes a while for the servers to find your choice amongst the jumble of hand-marked jars of loose tea by the kitchen, but not as long as you will take to decide among the three pages of colorfully-named tea leaf combinations. I enjoyed reading entries such as Fruit of the Plain (fruit peels and leaves) and Purple Mountains Majesty (flower petals and leaves).

For an appetizer, try the apples-and-Gouda platter to share with a group of friends. The hard bread was a bit tough on the teeth, but the vegan red pepper spread, resembling a mayo-textured hummus, was a nice touch.

The entr?e comes with a choice of soup or salad. Last week’s soup was yam and carrot soup. It was a beautiful pumpkin colored soup that warmed the soul. The house salad came in a bowl filled to the brim with greens: romaine lettuce, a few cherry tomatoes, sliced carrots, raw snow peas and a single grape. Some might complain about the lack of salad dressing, but the salad was nicely complemented by the subtle oil and vinegar sprinkled with a bit of black pepper.

The Linguini with White Bean Sauce was a nice twist on traditional pasta, and perfect for those who prefer not to have tofu. Purely vegan, the sauce reminded me of a delicious bean and tomato soup made from scratch. The marinated artichokes mixed in added a contrasting sharp saltiness to the subdued bean flavor. The pasta was al dente and came in a huge serving.

The Tofu and Mushroom Marsala was a faux chicken dish magically created with extra-firm tofu, managing to be as chewy and juicy as poultry. The marsala sauce was created traditionally with red and Marsala wines; but without the butter, the sauce was very weak and undistinguishable. The mushrooms just got in the way of the bland sauce, and the rice was dry and too fragrant. The thin covering of flavor makes you want to grab for the salt shaker, but it grows on you after time.

Instead of the Tofu Marsala, go for the Tofu Picatta – where the homemade lemon sauce is just the right attitude and covers the tofu enough to make your mouth think it’s actually chicken. The picatta omits the long red grains in the Basmati rice, thus letting your palate savor the eggless and chicken-brothless substitute. You have to try it to believe it.

So bring your tofu-skeptical friends. Let them indulge in the desserts while you feast on the versatility of tofu and other bean varieties. Teach them that beans are our friends and can be really tasty, especially if you’re having fun being freaked out by a giant wooden fish or hawk glaring down at you during dinner.

See www.zenithpgh.com for the weekly menu and more information.

[Janet - ***
Janet’s friend - *** 1/2

(both are non-vegetarians)