Dancing to a different beet
New York diners are witnessing a vegie revolution
IT’S hard out there for a herbivore. The culinary landscape in the past few years — notably in my home base of New York — has been dominated by the mighty pig, in all its snout-to-tail, unctuous, cholesterol-be-damned glory.
Pig’s trotters, pig’s organs, whole pig’s heads, bacon cocktails . . . the porcine madness has seemed to be endless. But a minor revolution is under way in the hallowed kitchens and neighbourhood joints, and for once it doesn’t hinge on animal protein.
From New York’s Michelinstarred haute temples to its hipster neighbourhood bistros, chefs are exploring the myriad possibilities of vegetables. While the city is in no danger of being overrun by vegetarian restaurants, chefs are recalibrating their menus to embrace a wider range of plantbased foods, pushing vegetables to front and centre and letting meat play second fiddle.
One such chef is Amanda Cohen, whose East Village hot spot Dirt Candy (slang for vegetables) has become a magnet for casual gourmands. ‘ ‘ My main focus isn’t converting people to the joys of vegetables, it’s making great food,’’ she says.
‘‘But people do come with a lot of expectations and preconceptions, and it’s my job to blow those out of the water. And the way to do that is by giving people vegetables that taste unlike any they’ve had before.’’
Hence dishes such as Dirt Candy’s tomato spaetzle with fried green tomatoes and coconut sauce, or portobello mousse with pear and fennel compote and truffled toast. Then there are the cultinspiring barbecued carrot buns with hoisin sauce, which could be interpreted as a throwdown to David Chang’s legendary steamed pork buns at Momofuku.
Cohen isn’t afraid to use the kind of top-shelf ingredients — truffles, rare mushrooms, beurre blanc sauces — more commonly associated with her classically trained contemporaries, whose idea of a great meal involves a slab of protein at its core. She’s also not afraid to admit that using only vegetables presents unusual challenges. ‘‘Vegetables don’t use fat to convey flavour and their water content is much higher. You can just throw a steak on the grill and get away with it, but throw a pumpkin on the grill and prepare to have a lot of unhappy guests.’’
There’s also the conceptual issue, as Cohen well understands. ‘‘How do you make people excited about an eggplant?’’ she asks. Judging by the popularity of her stylish restaurant, with its warm, Scandinavian-inspired interior, this chutzpah-filled chef has definitely found a way. ‘‘Cooking vegetables is like being an explorer on an alien planet,’’ she says. ‘‘Every day you’re surprised by something you’ve never encountered before.’’
John Fraser, whose Upper West Side restaurant, Dovetail, was awarded a Michelin star this year, is another enthusiastic pioneer. He introduced a Monday Night Veg Menu to his otherwise flesh-heavy line-up and it is now one of the restaurant’s busiest nights. ‘‘It’s always packed,’’ Fraser says proudly when I ask for his thoughts on NewYork’s herbivore movement. I’m surprised to find he’s a recently converted vegetarian with plans to open a vegetarian restaurant in New York.
‘‘I became a vegetarian outside the restaurant,’’ Fraser says, ‘‘because obviously for my job I have to make meat and taste meat. But I started asking myself questions such as, ‘ Why do I need a bacon and egg sandwich every morning? What purpose does the bacon serve?’ I looked at the vegetarian choices and realised no one is going all the way with it.’’
The eureka moment occurred while Fraser was in Tokyo, enjoy- ing one of the exquisitely prepared and presented multi-course extravaganzas the Japanese do so well. ‘‘I realised that every dish I was eating was either vegetarian or vegan and at the end there’d be a tiny bit of wagyu beef or something, but that was it. The consumption of meat has got out of control in our culture. What’s satisfying to me is when you walk out of a restaurant and you feel good.’’
Even the regular menu at Dovetail shows the effects of Fraser’s enlightenment. ‘ ‘ The Monday night menu we put together is either vegie or vegan,’’ he says, ‘ ‘ but the other side is vegie-focused too . . . maybe a little bit of lamb belly to highlight how good fennel tastes, which is the opposite of other restaurants, where the lamb is the star.’’
Fraser rhapsodises about fava beans, fresh English peas and carrots tossed in a sweet, zesty marinade, excited by the new and the bold, the unsung flavour sensations and textures designed to jolt jaded palates.
It’s not just chefs on the fringes who are experimenting with vegetables. Alain Ducasse, whose restaurants — from New York’s Adour to Beige in Tokyo — have always celebrated meat, is introducing a signature dish called a vegetable cookpot, a delicious melange of white mushrooms and seven seasonal vegetables, at 11 of his restaurants. Each kitchen will fill its cookpot with ‘‘products of their terroir’’, says Ducasse. ‘‘ It is healthy cooking, with the right proportions of vegetables and meats.’’
Thomas Keller, whose The French Laundry (California) and Per Se (New York) are two of the most famous dining rooms in the world, is a pioneer of the trend. At Per Se he has always presented a vegetarian tasting menu alongside the standard carte, and the dishes are as beautifully conceived and executed as anything on the carnivore’s list.
Meanwhile, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, whose eateries encompass everything from classic steakhouse to Southeast Asian-inspired hawker food stall, is generating buzz for his latest New York venture, ABC Kitchen, whose philosophy can be summed up in its tagline: ‘‘local, organic, original food’’. The menu features ingredients such as roasted beets, baked endive and portobello mushrooms tossed with celery leaves. Pork, lamb and beef can still be found at ABC Kitchen, and are executed flawlessly, but you can’t help feeling the kitchen staff are more excited about the latest shipment of blood oranges than the steak in the fridge.
This new-found respect for vegetables is a natural sequel to the story of local, sustainable, organic foods, and a growing anxiety about growth hormones, mad cow disease, the use of antibiotics in factory farming and the treatment of animals in that system.
Vegetables are finally having their moment in the sun, and it’s not a minute too soon.
Dirt Candy’s Amanda Cohen has found ways of making vegies exciting
The River Room at Alain Ducasse’s Adour in New York
Portobello mousse with truffled toast at Dirt Candy
Banoffee pie at Per Se