The American dinner plate has seen a bit of a shift the last few years, with movements like “Meatless Mondays” and an emphasis on having vegetables take up more real estate. Setting aside the health benefits and ethical concerns about eating meat, the fact is that our planet cannot sustain a meat-based diet for all of its inhabitants. So vegetarian restaurants and menu options are a trend welcomed by Mother Earth. Unfortunately, many typical vegetarian menu items leave much to be desired. The ubiquitous salad, over-sauced stir fry, limp sautéed vegetables and boring soup often results in a pretty ho hum dining experience – certainly nothing you’d gush about to friends or snap a photo of for your food blog.
Then there are the mock meat products like “vegan prawns” – potato starch and gelatin concoctions shaped into half-moons and colored orange to resemble crustaceans. An “A” for ingenuity, but such food hacks seem to miss the point: in the right hands, vegetables themselves have the potential to dazzle with unique flavors and leave diners clamoring for more. A new school of fine dining vegetable-based restaurants across the country – where the proprietors source unique produce, use technique to develop deep flavor, experiment with texture, and perfect Modern-art like presentation – promise to delight even the staunchest carnivores.
Chef Shawn McClain, James Beard Best Chef Midwest 2006, conceived the idea for an elegant, vegetable-focused dining experience in 2004. The philosophy is simple: present the best seasonal vegetables and fruits in unexpected ways that showcase the purity of each ingredient. Guests are encouraged to slow down, and enjoy the fun surprises the menu offers. The refreshing pink peppercorn thyme soda is a whimsical way to prep your palate for treats like sage buttermilk biscuits with black pepper honey-butter and fig jam, or white corn polenta cake with cipollini onions and kohlrabi salsa verde. Top the meal off with one of the multi-dimensional desserts like toasted oat semifreddo with pumpkin custard and gingersnaps, and a glass of Portuguese Madeira wine.
If you had to sum up Chef Phillip Frankland Lee’s cuisine in one word, it would be “flavor.” Incredibly, Chef Lee maintains his status as the king of flavor in the almost-vegan kitchen of his second restaurant, The Gaderene Swine. That none of the cooks are vegan makes sense; this is not a restaurant for vegans and vegetarians, this is a destination for anyone looking for incredible food. Innovative and playful creations abound, like stuffed olives, roasted mushrooms with burnt sweet potatoes, and blackened cauliflower (a trio of multi-colored charred, pureed and crispy cauliflower topped with toasted crushed pistachios). Desserts, like the caramelized pear pie (utilizing fruit from a family tree), are not to be missed. There is also a 10-course tasting menu and chef’s table for those looking for veggie nirvana. Chef Lee plans to use the hillside behind the restaurant to grow vegetables, fruits and herbs.
Descending the single flight of stairs to enter Kajitsu feels like stepping into a dream. A mysterious, hidden tea house on some Tokyo backstreet that only the locals know of perhaps. But this is no tea house. And you’re on 39th Street in Manhattan. Kajitsu specializes in shojin cuisine, a type of vegetarian cooking that originated in Zen Buddhism and is still served in the temples today. Kajitsu offers a number of multi-course tasting experiences. The menus are constantly changing with the seasons, but expect artfully presented dishes like airy vegetable tempura with yuzu-miso sauce, handmade soba noodles, and black truffle rice. Fine Japanese green tea from a 300-year old producer paired and traditional Japanese candies round out the meal.
Although temporarily shuttered during the move to its new, much larger digs on Allen Street, Amanda Cohen’s “Big Dirt Candy” as she affectingly refers to it, promises to continue to deliver on the vegetarian fare that made the restaurant a hit. Modern classics, like her “faux foie gras,” a silky rich mushroom mousse that won the Chef top honors from PETA over 37 other contestants, will hopefully reemerge when the restaurant reopens in January 2015.
San Francisco and Los Angeles
No, fine dining Mexican is not an oxymoron. And with the emergence of Gracias Madres’ two California outposts, neither is vegan Mexican fine dining. The creators (the team behind Mission-based Café Gratitude) have had a long love affair with Mexican food dating back to the seventies. But organic, vegan, non-GMO Mexican options were virtually nonexistent. Until now. The restaurants use produce from the family’s 21-acre organic, biodynamic “Be Love Farm.” Inventive seasonal cocktails like “The Dude Abides” (a creamy blend of almond milk horchata shaved ice, smoked vanilla bean, and Mezcal) is a perfect complement to zippy Mexican-spiced dishes like roasted pumpkin soup with chile, and flautas stuffed with sweet potatoes and caramelized onions. Homemade flan with burnt sugar caramel, and the salted Mezcal caramel brownie with coconut bacon and orange cashew whipped cream thrill vegans and omnivores alike.