Healthy dining comes quite naturally to this inventive chef, whose Woodstock restaurant celebrates vegetarian cuisine that’s appealing to both veggie and meat-lovers.
Leslie Cook’s personal philosophy on the American diet is quite simple.
“The simple solution to the diet-related health and environmental problems is to eat real food that tastes good,” she says. “Stick with natural foods, by which I mean fresh fruits, vegetables and grains, beans and nuts.”
Avoiding low-fiber, high-sugar processed foods in favor of natural whole foods is precisely what Cook has captured in her restaurant, Expressly Leslie Vegetarian Specialties, 110 S. Johnson St., in Woodstock.
Opened four years ago, this restaurant embodies Cook’s love for cooking and vegetarian dining, a rare find for its suburban location. “There haven’t been a lot of vegetarian establishments this far from the city,” says the self-taught chef.
Cook and a small staff maintain a menu that’s 100 percent vegetarian, and includes a number of vegan options, from soups, salads and wraps to drinks and small-plate snacks. No processed or commercially prepared foods here.
One of the most popular items is the Twisted Omelet, a three-egg creation with spinach, mushroom and feta cheese that’s rolled up with Moroccan salsa in a Lebanese pita. Another favorite is the falafel wrap, with fava bean fritters, hummus, Jerusalem Salad, tahini and optional hot sauce. The pita pizzas and pizza bagels are also popular, each made with Moroccan salsa, eggplant, olives, peppers and both feta and Mozzarella cheeses.
In addition, the café serves a sampler plate, known as the “Expressly Leslie Plate,” that features taste portions of nine different salads: two daily specialties and seven standard offerings, which include Cucumber, Moroccan Eggplant and Spicy Olive.
The recently updated menu includes favorites such as red lentil soup and veggie chili, falafel and hummus. The drinks menu includes homemade smoothies, fresh-squeezed lemonade, tea and bottled water.
Desserts aren’t offered here, although diners will occasionally find treats from Jaci’s Cookies, a locally owned bakery located on the Square.
A big fan of Middle Eastern cuisine, Cook began selling homemade falafel at festivals and fairs eight years ago. “It was a hit anywhere I went,” she says. For two years, she operated a food concession trailer at the Woodstock Farmers Market, before settling into a permanent location.
Cook has noticed that introducing diners to vegetarian dishes is sometimes a tough sell, but it’s a skill she’s perfected over a lifetime.
“Having spent most of my life in a family where I was the only vegetarian, I learned how to prepare foods that appeal to both vegetarians and non-vegetarians,” Cook says. “I can usually predict which are the best things for non-vegetarians to start with. Once they try it, they’re hooked.”
She’s not necessarily aiming to make converts, but a diner’s willingness to explore new dishes certainly helps. “Those who try my cooking become more open-minded,” she says. “I have always thought that vegetarianism in this country has had a bad rap – probably justifiably so, because we don’t have a history of vegetarianism in which we’ve developed good recipes. But that’s changing. It’s different now.”
Cook really is serious about healthy eating: Many dishes here are gluten-free and cooked in either canola or olive oil. For particularly health-conscious diners, her website lists nutrition facts and may soon include ingredient lists.
Catering is available, typically for groups of 30 or fewer, though larger orders can be filled with ample notice.
Expressly Leslie hours: Tues., Wed. & Sat. 11 a.m.-3 p.m., and Thur.-Fri. 11 a.m.-7:30 p.m. On Woodstock Farmers Market days, Cook opens at 10 a.m., and on Friday evenings, patrons can BYOB and enjoy live music beginning at 5:30.