The other day I was telling my meat-loving American dad about the spate of chic new vegetarian and vegan restaurants in New York City, where I work and live: among them Nix, the buzzy new neighborhood joint from chef John Fraser; the vegan Avant Garden from restaurateur Ravi DeRossi; quick-serve spots such as By Chloe from Chloe Coscarelli of Food Network fame; the much-anticipated ABCV, opening in the coming months as the latest addition to Jean Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant empire.
My dad’s reaction? “You still need to explain to me why going to a vegetarian restaurant isn’t an act of penance.”
I see his point. The last time I dragged him to a vegetarian restaurant, it was somewhere in California, sometime in the early 2000s, and the experience could be summed up as follows: strange imitation meats, glorified side salads, bland piles of lentils, a frumpy setting littered with yoga brochures. The idea seemed to be that we were making an ethical, political, or environmental statement (or, better yet, all three) with what we allowed on our plate.
Needless to say, he’s steered clear of vegetarian restaurants since then, and I don’t blame him. Yet it might be time for him to reconsider. A handful of chefs in the U.S. and abroad have begun to put serious creative muscle behind plant-based menus, reinventing what used to be a niche dietary preference into an exciting culinary experience for vegetarians and omnivores alike.
Cropping up in NYC
“I’m not sure we’re at a full-fledged trend yet, but if we look at New York City as a microcosm, then I do think we’re going to start seeing a lot more vegetarian restaurants popping up,” says Amanda Cohen, who pioneered upscale vegetarian dining in New York City when she opened Dirt Candy in 2008.
In recent years, vegetables have gotten a lot more attention in contemporary kitchens. Early influencers include Chez Panisse's Alice Waters, who started to champion organic, locally grown vegetables in the 70’s. In 2001, Parisian chef Alain Passard’s three-Michelin-starred L’Arpege famously did away with meat; today, animal protein plays only a small supporting role at his restaurant. In the last decade, prominent voices ranging from author and activist Michael Pollan to Oprah have upped awareness about how reducing meat consumption helps build sustainable food systems and maintain balanced diets.
Health and ethics aside, this new guard of chefs is primarily focused on exploring the endless flavor and texture potential of vegetables, which have long played second fiddle to animal protein. (Of course, I’m setting aside the long-established vegetarian traditions found in such cultures as India and Japan.)
“When Dirt Candy opened, it boggled my mind that there were so many steak and fish places, but so few restaurants dedicated to vegetables,” says Cohen, who isn’t fully vegetarian herself. “There are so many more kinds of vegetables than meats, and so much more you can do with them. We’ve barely scratched the surface.”
Cohen’s menu at Dirt Candy, which has become one of the city’s most sought-after reservations, is a playful and original lineup of dishes, some of them downright indulgent—such as Brussels sprouts tacos presented on a sizzling stone, rosemary-eggplant tiramisu, and jalapeno hush puppies with vegan maple butter. Her success afforded her a move in 2015 from her pocket size space to a larger, light-filled 60-seater in the Lower East Side, designed in an elegant black-and-white floral theme by graffiti artist Noah McDonough.
A couple of neighborhoods over in Greenwich Village, in an equally inviting minimalist dining room, chef John Fraser quietly opened Nix this winter. The concept came out of a successful Mondays-only vegetarian prix fixe menu at his Michelin-starred Dovetail, an experiment he launched six years ago when the city’s pork belly obsession was still in full swing. Fraser’s personal shift to a mostly vegetarian diet and his resulting fixation on vegetables has also made a mark on the menus of both Dovetail and his second restaurant, Narcissa.
“The concept behind [Nix], and really the mission statement, is that in no way are you ‘giving up’ anything, or abstaining from the pleasure of dining out,” says Fraser. “That’s as simple as the richness of the food, or being ‘full,’ or the feeling that you’re in a fun and well-thought-out environment.”
On a recent night, Nix was humming with residents, curious media, and the occasional celebrity (Oprah among them). The casual menu, sourced from the Union Square Greenmarket nearby, is divided into two parts: “lighter” (steamed avocado with carrots and kale-pistachio chimichurri) and “bolder” (heartier options such as Yukon potato fry bread, topped with sour cream, cheddar, scallions, broccoli florets, and radishes—a dish of the moment on local foodie Instagram feeds).
Global veg out
Beyond New York City, like-minded chefs have also turned out inventive menus that have catapulted them into the national spotlight. At Vedge in Philadelphia, chef Rich Landau and his wife, pastry chef Kate Jacoby, have both been nominated for James Beard awards and have been praised by such vegan-averse food critics as New York’s Alan Richman. In L.A., chef Tal Ronnen of Crossroads Kitchen made vegan dining sexy with his prominent spot on Melrose Avenue and a dynamic Mediterranean small-plates menu to match. Notably, the word “vegan” is nowhere to be found on the website’s home page, and according to Ronnen, 90 percent of his diners are neither vegan nor vegetarian.
Across the Atlantic in London, Vanilla Black, run by chef Andrew Dargue and his wife, Donna Conroy, is widely considered one of the city’s best vegetarian restaurants. When the couple opened the restaurant in 2008, they set some ground rules: no pasta bakes, no meat substitutes, and absolutely no yoga brochures in the window. “At Vanilla Black we deliberately steer clear of stereotypical vegetarian options,” says Dargue. “We create dishes that challenge the perceptions of the cuisine.” Instead, on the menu you’ll find Ribblesdale cheese pudding with smoked potato croquette and pineapple chutney (an ode to gammon steak and pineapple, a classic pub dish), and an experimental salted and ash-baked celeriac and kale.
True, phrases such as “salted and ash-baked celeriac and kale” may not lure folks like my dad back into a vegetarian restaurant. But what might is the fact that these plant-obsessed chefs want to excite your taste buds, one boundary-pushing dish at a time—and feel free to order a gorgeous ribeye tomorrow.
Click here for our global list of restaurants that will change your ideas about vegetarian and vegan food—from contemporary restaurants to kitchens showcasing centuries-old cooking traditions—all well worth the detour on your next trip.
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