Two years ago, Maisie Coborne was a human resources manager in London. Her friend, Kelly Bruney, was a self-employed business consultant in the same city. Both vegetarians and avid amateur cooks, they often talked of their common dream of opening a restaurant.
Talk became action in the summer of 2008, when Coborne and Bruney quit their jobs and crossed the Atlantic in search of a location for their restaurant. Their quest took them to Chapel Hill, where they signed a lease for a small space on the back side of University Square.
They gave the space a quietly inviting feel with earth tones highlighted by abstract paintings in muted citrus colors, a single daisy on each table and a mix of Vivaldi and soft jazz playing in the background.
The partners' passion for cooking notwithstanding, they decided to hire a professional kitchen crew. Their dream became reality in July, when Butternut Squash opened its doors.
And then it quickly turned into a nightmare. In spite of the restaurant's out-of-the-way location, word of mouth spread among area vegetarians, who have long been underserved. They flocked to the restaurant, only to discover that many of the dishes fell far short of their menu descriptions.
Nonvegetarians, too (myself among them), ordered the Butternut Squash house salad and were served "grilled" butternut squash and sweet potatoes whose texture more resembled dried apples, "grilled" pear that turned out to be raw and a few crumbles of feta atop a bed of lettuce. The only redeeming feature of the dish (which was served for a price of $9.50, no less) was the bright citrus vinaigrette served on the side.
Nor did Butternut Squash spaghetti live up to its signature billing. A description of "butternut squash, zucchini, carrots, broccoli and sautéed potatoes in a caramelized garlic and honey sauce" yielded a smattering of half-inch diced vegetables (except the broccoli, which was AWOL), precious little sauce and lots of plain pasta.
Thai-style seitan skewers were reasonably tasty, as was the accompanying coconut rice. But the peanut lime sauce was congealed, and the promised snow peas were represented by precisely six overcooked specimens. Seriously? Six snow peas in a vegetarian restaurant?
By November, Bruney and Coborne had learned the lesson: A culinary degree is no guarantee that a chef can translate a vegetarian's favorite home recipes to a restaurant kitchen. They fired the chef, and Bruney took charge of the kitchen.
The difference is, as they say, like night and day. On a subsequent lunchtime visit, the soup du jour - leek and potato, served hot - was an earthy delight with a scattering of bright green English peas adding textural contrast and visual sparkle. The spicy black bean hemp-nut burger, redolent of cumin and topped with fresh avocado slices, goat cheese and basil aioli on a toasted vegan bun, was first-rate. So was the accompanying potato salad, whose creamy dressing was punctuated with whole grain mustard.
On another visit one evening, an order of tempeh hot wings produced a toothsome - and share-able - starter of deep-fried tempeh batons in a classic Buffalo sauce with a moderate kick. Chili seitan was a winner, too, serving up an ample portion of the meaty-textured wheat-based protein, simmered with red beans and onions in a spicy, subtly smoky chili over brown rice.
For all the restaurant's improvements, I should point out that some dishes at Butternut Squash will taste undersalted to the average palate. Bruney explains that many of the restaurant's patrons are on a salt-restricted diet, adding that others are welcome to season to taste with the provided salt shakers. Fair enough.
I'll confess that I was reluctant to return to Butternut Squash after that first visit and did so only out of my duty as a restaurant critic. Now, even though there's no longer such a sense of duty to compel me, I'm looking forward to my next visit.
If you're among those who visited the restaurant in the first few months and left disappointed, you might consider giving it another chance, too.