Features Putting Vegetables on a Pedestal: High Concept Vegetarian Cuisine
Putting Vegetables on a Pedestal: High Concept Vegetarian Cuisine
August 2009

With all the talk of sustainable and local, it’s no surprise that vegetables are becoming the shining stars of many menus, as they are the ultimate signifier of seasonality. Some restaurants have taken this philosophy a step further by cutting out the meat entirely and letting the produce speak for itself. Besides being better for the environment and, in some cases, your health, vegetable-driven menus also have the potential to bring in higher margins.

A new slew of meat-free restaurants are breaking the tasteless tofu and meat substitute mold that has come to be identified with vegetarian cuisine. The chefs at these high concept establishments focus on making fresh ingredients sing in elegant, playful, and innovative ways.

Amanda Cohen, chef/owner of Dirt Candy in New York City, opened her restaurant just under a year ago simply because there were no restaurants that embodied “how I like to eat.” As a chef and a vegetarian of 16 years (Cohen now eats fish, although doesn’t serve it at the restaurant) Cohen named her eatery Dirt Candy as a playful celebration of her love of vegetables.

And while most menu items at Dirt Candy can be made vegan, Cohen specifically wanted a place that embraced dairy. Diners are served dishes that are swimming in a rich kaffir lime buerre blanc or topped with preserved lemon aioli. Cohen also turns out expertly fried—and far from health-focused—items like jalapeno hushpuppies, tempura eggs, and royale trumpet mushrooms prepared to look like onion rings.

“It’s not the usual vegetarian restaurant and there are no meat substitutes,” explains Cohen. “We’re not the vegetarian restaurant everyone wants. Some people want a more healthy, more basic meal than what we offer. Our restaurant doesn’t have to be everything to everybody.”

For those who are looking for a more health-focused model, there’s Sutra in Seattle, which is vegan and attached to Chef Colin Patterson’s yoga studio. For Patterson, his “main goal is to make the body feel good through food that is true, light, looks great, and is fuel for the body.”

Patterson’s Celeriac Ravioli with Chanterelle Mushrooms and Cashew Cheese showcases the potential of vegetables. Although on the surface it is a vegan riff on a classic Italian dish, once you take a bite it becomes clear there’s a lot more at work there. Rather than serving pasta dough wrapped around cheese, Patterson cleverly substitutes the dough for a skin of pressed celeriac and the filling for fermented cashew “cheese.”

Where Patterson is a vegetarian yoga instructor and chef, Jeremy Fox is a more unlikely candidate to be the executive chef at Napa Valley vegetarian restaurant Ubuntu—he used to run the meat station at Manresa in Los Gatos, CA. Although Ubuntu is also connected to a yoga studio, Fox is less concerned with yogic poses than with making vegetables from the restaurant’s garden shine.

Fox’s experience in the meat station hasn’t totally gone to the wayside. While in that position he made the charcuterie and was responsible for preparing an annual nose-to-tail pig dinner, a philosophy that he has translated to his vegetable preparations. “It’s that type of meat cookery that I brought here [to Ubuntu],” explains Fox. “We use every part of our produce—we’ll use large leaves as the base of a plate, we’ll braise the bulbs or conserve raw—we’re looking at vegetables in the same way as you would animals and trying to pay that respect.”

One of the ways Chefs Cohen, Fox, and Patterson execute exciting vegetarian dishes is by playing with textures. At Dirt Candy, Cohen serves a Greek Salad that packs a surprising punch. She mixes crunchy cucumbers and plump tomatoes with herbs and tops them with pickled onions and ultra-crispy mushroom rings. Creamy preserved lemon mayo completes the dish for a satisfying salad that doesn’t leave you hungry.

The dishes at Ubuntu are refined and often play on classics, like Fox’s hearty Pot au Feu, which is rich in flavor and texture. It’s made with caramelized onion consommé instead of veal stock, and is enhanced with soft homemade fregola and young roots.

Patterson’s Forbidden Black Rice and Yellow Beet Rolls with Grilled Eggplant Mousse and Kaiware Sprouts is a study in contrasting textures that meld in your mouth and make you wanting more. The rice is chewy, the beet is crunchy and the mousse is luxuriously creamy.

All three of these restaurants also have a serious focus on sustainability. Both Sutra and Ubuntu have substantial gardens adjoining their restaurants that serve as daily inspiration for their menus. When Patterson needs produce that’s not available in his own backyard, he works with local farmers and foragers to get organic goods. Sutra composts everything they can, which provides the soil that goes right back into the garden.

And Sutra and Dirt Candy were both built green from the ground-up. Cohen said that when they were building Dirt Candy she felt they might as well take the right steps towards being a green restaurant—and besides, she says, “it’s not that much more expensive just to take a few easy steps.” All of the equipment is LEED-certified, they used sustainable material to build everything, and Cohen has become obsessed with her induction burner, which lets off less heat—a major plus in a restaurant that’s so small.

And if you need another reason to cut down on your meat offerings, just think about the higher margin you can get on those veggie dishes. Of course, most mainstream restaurants aren’t going to rush to take the meat off their menus, but as chefs become more sustainability-minded vegetables are beginning to take less of a back seat. If Cohen, Patterson, and Fox don’t necessarily encourage a new business model, they can at least provide inspiration for more exciting vegetable preparations.