Simple dishes made with quality ingredients is why top chefs celebrate the nuances and elegance of vegetarian cuisine.
Somewhere between the honey-mustard chow-fun noodles tangled with Chinese broccoli and the arrival of seven-vegetable tagine to our table at Green Zebra restaurant in downtown Chicago, my husband turned to me and asked, "Who needs meat?" Although he adores vegetables, he's the first to declare that almost anything tastes better with a little bacon. And yet, there we were—at a hip vegetarian eatery, oohing and aahing over the deep flavors of vegetables served in ways we had never seen or tasted. Fragrant with garlic, cumin, and coriander, the Moroccan stew brimmed with chunky root vegetables, fat olives, and soft Medjool dates. The flavors—pure, sophisticated, and multilayered—ricocheted around our mouths like pinballs. The cool thing is that such a creative, nuanced meal is no longer a rarity for vegetarians. In fact, it's never been a better time to be a vegetarian or enjoy meat-free fare.
In the past, eating out vegetarian meant going to small hangouts to eat hummus, salads, or fake "cheeseburgers." Most fine-dining establishments had few, if any, worthwhile meatless options. If you were lucky, the menu would offer a token pasta or risotto with vegetables. Now, thanks to a long-overdue epiphany, vegetarian cuisine has gone gourmet and upscale. Chefs have begun to realize the glory of vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, celebrating the ingredients' tastes, textures, and colors. And an increasing number of white-tablecloth restaurants dedicated to fine meat-free dishes are springing up across the country. "We're not catering to the meat analogue market," says chef Magdiale Wolmark, who, with his wife, opened Dragonfly, a vegan restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. "We're using vegetables as a construct to create fabulous food." The happy result is, if you're vegetarian or vegan—or if you eat a plant-based diet—you can dine out like your omnivore friends: In style. You can sip a cocktail, enjoy a glamorous setting, and relish the kind of adventurous, complex gourmet cuisine found in the hottest eateries.
Farm to Table
Dubbed "neo-v," Dragonfly's modern, animal-free cuisine consists of dishes based on what's ripe and ready to pick in Wolmark's kitchen garden. Using French techniques, such as reducing vegetable stocks for sauces, and flavors from South America and China, the chef creates a four-star menu that offers sashimi-style matsutake mushrooms with Chinese long beans, amaranth, and pumpkin-seed oil. Another favorite is heirloom-tomato-sauced ravioli stuffed with "cheese" made from pistachio nuts softened in water and then pureed with seasonings such as miso, garlic, lemon juice, and chiles. Diners begin and end their meal with an amuse bouche (a mini appetizer from the chef) and a small dessert, such as a chocolate-huckleberry truffle. "It's a high-concept, highly evolved cuisine," says Wolmark. "People often say, 'I never imagined it could be like this.'" This disbelief is not surprising, given that most diners—omnivores as well as vegetarians—remain stuck in a vegetarian mind-set in which rice and beans reign. "When we opened, people thought we were crazy," says Shawn McClain, a business partner and chef at Green Zebra. "When I worked at restaurants that served meat, I got a fair amount of vegetarian requests, so we provided a vegetarian tasting menu that was equal to the regular tasting menu. People were blown away—really grateful.
So when we opened Green Zebra in 2004, it wasn't to make a political statement, but to say, 'Hey, here is a kind of cuisine that's not featured at your typical vegetarian restaurant.'" In Los Angeles, chef David Anderson is creating a similar style of new-world vegan cuisine. He and his wife opened Madeleine Bistro in 2005, with a vision to go upscale. "I met Charlie Trotter in Chicago in 1996, and his style of cooking blew me away," says Anderson, referring to the Chicago chef famed for his intricate seasonal dishes and interest in raw-food cuisine. "He had these amazing flavor combinations and ideas with vegetables, and I thought, 'I need to be doing what he's doing, only with no animal products.'" Taking a no-boundaries philosophy, Anderson woos his diners with such dishes as artichoke and sun-dried tomato risotto with roasted garlic and crispy black kale, and house-smoked portobello mushrooms with cucumber-dill sauce, Yukon Gold potato blini, and wasabi "caviar," made from tiny gelled balls. To make "cream" from cashews, Anderson whips water-soaked nuts in a blender until liquidy, white, and smooth. "Part of my vision," he says, "is to communicate that this cuisine has arrived by bringing it to a level where people will respect it."
Toast to a Plant-based Diet
That respect is now earned on the palate, but the nutritional merits are something to laud, too. Whether or not you choose vegetarianism, a plant-based diet is considered optimum for good health. A recent study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Associationcompared eight popular weight-loss plans, including the Ornish Diet developed by Dean Ornish, MD, to gauge their effectiveness in helping people reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease. Ornish's diet—one that aims to reverse and prevent heart disease—proved the most effective. The mainly vegetarian regimen excludes most animal products except egg whites and nonfat dairy products, and strictly limits cholesterol and saturated fat. Making this sort of vegetarian diet more readily available is what prompted Joy Pierson and her husband, Bart Potenza, to create two vegan restaurants in Manhattan: Candle Cafe and the more upscale Candle 79. "Our vision," says Pierson, a nutritionist, "was to create a communal place where we could heal the world, beginning in the kitchen." Using locally grown, organic ingredients, Candle 79 offers ethnically inspired cuisine, such as Pad Thai made with "noodles" of young coconut tossed with marinated vegetables, spicy cashews, and lemongrass-tamarind cream, as well as paella with grilled vegetables, smoked seitan sausage, and saffron-red pepper sauce. "I believe that food is medicine, and medicine is food," says Pierson.
Go Vegan at Home
At Millennium, a vegan restaurant in San Francisco, health has been on the menu since 1994. But many people also come for the beautiful, exquisitely prepared food. "About 50 percent of our clients are not strict vegetarians or vegans, but people who love what we do," says Erick Tucker, executive chef and co-owner. "Our focus is on the quality of the ingredients and creating a finished product that appeals to an educated foodie palate." In a votive-lit room with burgundy curtains and black-and-white marble floors, diners enjoy crispy fried oyster mushrooms with sweet pepper jam; white-bean-stuffed phyllo purses with porcini-Zinfandel sauce; and desserts such as avocado semifreddo with lemon custard and candied rosemary. Although these dishes sound complicated, most can be replicated at home. In fact, Tucker has written two cookbooks as evidence—Millenium Cookbook and The Artful Vegan. He also offers hands-on vegan cooking classes once a month, beginning with a trip to the farmers' market to inspire the recipes. Joy Pierson and Bart Potenza also have a cookbook, The Candle Cafe Cookbook: More Than 100 Enlightened Recipes from New York's Renowned Vegan Restaurant. And so does Sarma Melngailis, the owner of Pure Food & Wine, a posh raw-food salon in downtown New York, which opened in June 2004. With sexy sake cocktails and spicy Thai vegetable wraps appearing on the menu and in her cookbook called Raw Food/Real World: 100 Recipes to Get the Glow, Melngailis's (and coauthor Matthew Kenney's) cuisine is bewitching yet approachable, healthy, and innovative. Which is the bottom line—these restaurants are presenting exciting alternatives to your stereotypical vegetarian and vegan fare. Using wholesome ingredients found at farm stands, health food stores, and supermarkets, these chefs are showing delectable new ways to enjoy mushrooms, tofu, cashews, and more. And with the recipes, you can do the same—and never miss the bacon.
About the Author
Victoria Abbott Riccardi is the author of the book Untangling My Chopsticks: A Culinary Sojourn in Kyoto.