Dancing to a dif­fer­ent beet

New York din­ers are wit­ness­ing a vegie revo­lu­tion

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - EMMA SLO­LEY

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

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