Boston Eats: Seasonal, vegetarian fast food at Clover
When I travel, I usually never like to repeat restaurants, in the interest of saving stomach space for different culinary adventures. But my first night in Boston, my friend introduced me to Clover - its full name is “Clover Food Lab,” a fast food chain featuring innovative, fresh vegetarian fare. And the concept was curious enough for me that ended up going back a couple times.
The offering mainly centers around sandwiches and platters - with the same ingredients available in either format. So for example, you could get the chickpea fritters (aka falafel) inside bread, or on a plate with a couple more side dishes. While not broadcasting the fact that everything is vegetarian, all of the food is. From traditionally vegetarian dishes like the aforementioned falafel, naturally good pairings like eggplant and egg, to meat-like-copies like “BBQ Seitan” and Impossible Meatballs. They emphasize local farms and suppliers, and they are constantly changing their menus to reflect what’s in season.
Their digital menu boards feature the time it took to prepare the last order, so you get a sense of how quickly you can get your order, and also highlights the menu items they’re testing - the “Lab” part of the name. The menu also gives a more in-depth look at each item, including a cutesy story of the origins of the recipe. I wish the board would have cycled faster through the items, though, because it’s actually hard to decipher what exactly the “Mezze Platter” contains with just those two words.
That first night at the Clover in Central Square, I tried “The Zucchini Platter,” which included blocks of fried tofu and a zucchini and corn salad. The sauce was a bit sweet, and slabs of tofu can sometimes be a bit dull, but what I really liked were the side dishes. One was a carrot salad, and the other was a delicious concoction, and I wasn’t really sure what it was, besides that it had a great flavor and texture. I think there were little cubes of wheat gluten, onions, tomatoes, and possibly eggplant - maybe it was an eggplant caponata?
I had already passed by a Clover in Harvard Square, so I knew it was a chain, but I was genuinely surprised to see that Clover was now in the Science Center! I don’t remember exactly what the “Greenhouse Café” that used to be there served, but Clover would certainly be a step up (in price, too).
I dropped by for a cup of cold drip coffee to cool myself off this humid summer day, and I was impressed that the order was dripped to order! Now this kitchen does really look more like a lab…
So then when my friend came around to head off for lunch together, but in the end we decided to stay put and eat lunch right there, at Clover again.
They had an “add a cup of soup to your sandwich” deal, but I wasn’t feeling like bread this day, and really liked the side salads that the platters come with. So my friend gallantly asked the cashier if we could get that deal for the platters. And the cashier did grant the request “as an exception.” Thank you!
I had been very curious about the Impossible meat, a product that they tout as being the most meat-like ever - it is supposed to even “bleed” red! So I ordered the Impossible Meatballs, which came with a chickpea salad, a cucumber salad, and delicious creamy beet salad, and that yummy possibly-whey and tomato salad from the night before. The soup that I had so very much wanted to order was the “New England Shiitake Chowder.”
So I’m not sure if a meatball was the best vehicle to show off the meat-like qualities of Impossible Meat, because meatballs are usually blended with breadcrumbs and other ingredients to take away the meat-like texture. I would say these were a bit overly moist and stringy to be believable as meatballs, but they were fine.
The shiitake chowder tasted just like my mom’s miso stew with seaweed, mushrooms, and potatoes, so it was tasty, but I guess with a name like “New England xxx Chowder,” I was expecting a closer approximation to a clam chowder.
My friend’s chickpea fritters, on the other hand, were superb, since they were light and extraordinarily crunchy. They seemed to have even more crunch surface area than usual.
In summary, while there were misses along with the hits, what would keep me coming back to Clover (if I lived in Boston!) is the constant variety and imaginative preparations of vegetables. Because unless you’re talking about bagged salads, or a simple cut tomato dressed with oil and salt, vegetable salads and main courses are among the most time-consuming to make, in my opinion. There’s all of the washing, chopping, shredding, dicing to do, and unlike meat dishes, it’s hard to prep and freeze, and then finish cooking the day-of. So having a restaurant that makes this sort of food fast and accessible just makes so much sense.