Power to the Produce

At a growing number of restaurants, vegetable-based entrées aren’t just for vegetarians anymore.

There’s a good chance that the juicy, glistening hunk waiting to be devoured on your plate at the latest hot restaurant in town might not be meat. It could be a charred cauliflower head with prosciutto shavings; creamy black beans amped with cumin; or pasta oozing with fresh mozzarella — designed to satisfy like a beefy burger or juicy roast chicken.

Almost a decade ago, food writer Michael Pollan penned what is today an axiom for healthy eating: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” The message has marinated, and now the dining-out public might be ready to order from the menu with that philosophy in mind. Americans reduced their beef consumption by 19 percent between 2005 and 2014, according to research released in March by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The beef snubbing could be attributed to rising meat prices during the multiyear drought, environmental concerns, or the growing wellness trend.

It’s not just Amanda Cohen of NYC’s Dirt Candy who’s playing with carrots four ways in the same dish. Chefs and restaurateurs all over are giving vegetables the respect and meticulous attention previously reserved for meat. Seeing a hole in the local market, Berj Yeretzian and Tania Rahal filled it with Rosemary and Vine in Rye in 2015, opening a modern Mediterranean-inspired organic, vegetarian restaurant.

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Farm-to-fork chain Dig Inn serves organic, locally sourced vegetables in their marketbowls.

“It’s about fully composed and complex dishes, a lot of which are designed to appeal to the meat eater, and a lot of guests are meat eaters,” Yeretzian says. “But you don’t really need meat to have a lot of flavor; we chose Mediterranean because traditionally it revolves around vegetables, and the meat was a flavor enhancer.” We doubt any card-carrying carnivore can claim hunger after attacking the lasagna where porcini and cremini nestle among the noodles with Parmesan, mozzarella, ricotta, feta, and toma cheeses, draped with a tarragon-infused béchamel sauce and served on a house-made roasted tomato and garlic sauce with grilled garlic bread.

The rising prominence of plant-centered plates is not part of a vegan or vegetarian manifesto. It’s more of a vegi-vore tendency, indicating a vegetable passion rather than fervid meat hate. Both fast-casual and fine-dining restaurants are dabbling with the idea of using meat as a flavor enhancer rather than the foundation of the meal.

Vegetables are not the afterthought, but the selling point at NYC-based Dig Inn, which opened its first suburban outpost in January, in Rye Brook. People create their own salad and grain bowls with the option of adding a protein on top. For its first winter season, the new location’s 10-seat chef’s counter served vegetable-forward entrées such as mushroom tartare on flax crackers, and black lentils, grilled chicories, and butternut squash conserva. 

Dig Inn’s culinary director, Matt Weingarten, is always tweaking the offerings based on the season’s produce. “As more and more restaurants are shifting towards veggie-centric menus, we are proud that a plant-forward philosophy has been at our core since the beginning,” Weingarten says. While the fast-casual chain incorporates hormone- and antibiotic-free protein such as chicken, steak, salmon, and tofu into the menu, “we focus heavily on the integrity of our farm-fresh produce, which makes up 60 to 70 percent of what we serve in store each day.”

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Village Social Kitchen + Bar’s locations in Mount Kisco and Rye serve meat entrées at dinner, but also feature inventive vegetarian sections that change with seasonal availability. Earlier this year in Mount Kisco, there was a wood-fired chestnut lasagna with mushrooms, arugula, and truffle vinaigrette, and a vegetable burger slathered with garlic aioli and stuffed with alfalfa sprouts. None of the small plates contain meat, and four out of the seven pizzas are meatless.

The newer Rye location is helmed by Chef Alex Aparicio, veteran chef from vegan hit Avant Garden and John Fraser’s Dovetail and Narcissa, the latter two credited with starting the vegetable-forward movement in NYC. Like in Mount Kisco, Aparicio also creates all meat-free small plates. And depending on the season, his vegetarian lasagna can be layered with celery root, apples, and a chestnut velouté or resemble a 5-inch-high colorful ratatouille with thinly sliced, stacked eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes over a smoky-sweet piquillo pepper pureé, deepened by caramelized onions, basil pesto, and pecorino cheese. Aparicio treats roasted cauliflower like a steak and charred broccoli and radicchio like grilled meat. 

The ancient grains quinoa and wheat berry go into Village Social’s Organic Mother’s Grain salad.

“I’m incorporating all the French techniques I’d use on meat proteins and fishes but on the vegetables: roasting, curing, braising,” Aparicio says. On this day, he’s curing carrots in the merguez spice mix used in Spanish-North African sausage. “You get the spicy flavor of sausage, but still get the sweetness of the carrot,” he says. Aparicio loves the challenge of satiating people’s appetites with healthier vegetable-heavy plates, as well as helping local farmers.

Chefs and restaurants are focusing more on seasonality, and vegetable-centric menus are inherently seasonal, says Beau Widener, culinary director at ERL Hospitality, which stands for “Eats Roots Leaves.” The hospitality group runs Tomatillo in Dobbs Ferry, Sweet Grass Grill and Grass Roots Kitchen in Tarrytown, and Red Zebra in Sleepy Hollow.

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Widener’s restaurants kick up the boldness of their vegetable-focused recipes with a few tricks. They introduce umami using mushrooms, tomatoes, spices, fermented foods, and dried ingredients. Meals also achieve more meaty depth when the produce is smoked and charred on the grill.

“We are passionate about food that is not only good for the body and soul but also good for the planet. And I think because of this mindfulness, we tend to create veg-centric menus without even really planning it that way,” Widener says. 

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