When it comes to dining out, it can suck to be a vegetarian. While most restaurants offer a few token meatless dishes, they tend to hold the creativity as well as the meat. You know the stuff—pasta primavera, cheese pizza, salad.
Then there are those restaurants that serve highly processed, textured vegetable protein and tofu dishes that masquerade as meat—mock chicken, sawdust-flavored veggie burgers, insipid tofu dogs and other desperate attempts to make meatless dishes taste like meat. In many cases, these meatless products are just as processed and factory-farmed as the meat they seek to replace. Vegetables should be enjoyed on their own terms rather than as sad analogues to meat.
Given that just about every restaurant these days touts its seasonal, farm-to-table cuisine, one would think there would be more places that highlight vegetables as something other than a side dish or salad. And while it's true that vegetarians are a minority—about 3 percent of the U.S. population—you need not be a vegetarian to appreciate well-prepared vegetables.
The truth is, it's harder to cook creatively with vegetables and serve them at the center of the plate. Anyone can grill up a steak or burger, but it takes real skill and technique to elevate the veggie to the starring role.
In France, chef Alain Passard has built his reputation on his vegetable-based cooking. His restaurant, L'Arpège, is a destination that appeals to food lovers of all types, not just vegetarians.
Closer to home, chef Perry Hoffman at Healdsburg's Shed does a great job of putting vegetables in the spotlight, and Santa Rosa's new Seed to Leaf creates some delicious plant-based menu items with vegetables, seeds and nuts. But still, vegetables and the people who love them don't get the respect they deserve.
"The worst is the 'chef's vegetarian plate of the day,'" laughs Carneros Bistro executive chef Andrew Wilson. The restaurant is located in the Lodge at Sonoma Renaissance Resort & Spa. Pity the poor vegetarian who is forced to eat a plate of lettuce with carrot sticks, potato salad and maybe some cheese. Fortunately, there are chefs like Wilson who relish the challenge of featuring vegetables in a starring role.
- RAVE WORTHY Dry Creek Kitchen's ravioli goes well beyond the token vegetarian pasta.
Wilson admits Carneros Bistro is not a vegetarian restaurant by any means, but he says he strives to offer non–meat eaters solid choices. He recently had a truffled quinoa dish on the menu that featured wood-roasted baby beets and carrots, confit shallots, foraged mushrooms and twin sauces.
Wilson says he works to put interesting vegetarian dishes on the menu, but they require a concerted effort.
"It can be very challenging," he says. He looks for dishes that can serve as "meat replacements" and hold their own as an entrée. "There's a lot of thought that goes into it."
Vegetarians are a minority, but they aren't shy about letting the kitchen know what they think, he says. "Here in Northern California, they are very vocal minority."
Hazel restaurant in Occidental has an advantage that many restaurants do not: a wood-fired oven. Chef and co-owner Jim Wimborough makes some great pizzas that go well beyond pesto and cheese. Last summer, they served a great pie with corn, cherry tomatoes, jalapeños and Pugs Leap chèvre.
Wimborough says making the most of what local farms have to offer is the best way to showcase vegetables. "It's simple when you start with good ingredients," he says. "You want to fill people up and make them feel like they've had a meal without having to feed them a piece of chicken or meat."
On the menu now is a late winter dish featuring red quinoa, butternut squash, maitake mushrooms, arugula and a dollop of crème fraîche. He's looking forward to the wave of spring produce that will soon start to arrive. "That's more exciting to me than a rib-eye," he says.
Look for a bucatini with spring pea pesto during Sonoma County Restaurant Week, March 7–13.
Bill Govan has worked in the restaurant industry since 1978, at places ranging from the Madrona Manor in Healdsburg to the Sonoma Mission Inn. He's currently the director of food and beverage at the Duck Club in Bodega Bay. One of his most popular items on the menu is a meatless dish that appeals to carnivores as well.
"One of our signature dishes," Govan says, "is the whole milk ricotta gnocchi" from Bellwether Farms. "People gravitate to the gnocchi because it's fabulous, and not just because they are vegetarians, though some of them of course are. You try to just blow them away no matter who they are."
Vegetarians can be hard to pigeonhole. Govan says it depends on how you determine what people mean when they say they're vegetarian. A piscatarian, someone who eats fish, is not a vegetarian.
"We get vegetarians all the time who eat chicken. We don't care about any of that. Give us some constraints, and let us delight you," Govan says.
- SPECIALTY OF THE HOUSE Spoonbar co-chef Casey Van Voorhis elevates the humble cabbage in one of her signature dishes.
But he doesn't hesitate when asked which meat dish he'd keep if the menu was flipped to a vegetarian-dominated array of entrées with only one meat option: he'd keep the duck, of course.
Casey Van Voorhis, the new co-chef at Spoonbar in Healdsburg, is effusive about a current dish that's finished off tableside. And no, it's not steak tartare, but stuffed cabbage.
For the dish, savoy cabbage leaves are lightly blanched with purple cabbage, leeks, pickled mustard seeds, black trumpet mushrooms, marjoram, parsley and red runner beans from Rancho Gordo. The meaty beans add density to the dish, says Van Voorhis.
"We take the cabbage ball and wrap it tight, lightly roast it in the oven to dry if off and make it look really pretty," says Van Voorhis. "The cool part is that it comes out tableside, and we make a vegetarian demi-glace with fennel, onions, some cabbage trim, carrots and turnips—nothing too overbearing on its own. It has a demi-glace consistency, but it's 100 percent vegetarian. People will say, 'That's hoisin!' No, it's not."
The demi-glace goes over the red cabbage and adds a bright visual that looks great when presented tableside. "Being where we are, and being spoiled with so many veggies," says Van Voorhis, "we have lots of vegetarian and some vegan options without having to do special accommodations."
Over at the Dry Creek Kitchen, all the talk these days is of the Healdsburg restaurant's annual upcoming Pigs & Pinot event March 18–19, says Christa Weaving, director of public relations and marketing with the Charlie Palmer Group. But vegetarians aren't an afterthought at Dry Creek Kitchen—far from it.
"I get the idea that there is always the token vegetarian dish on the menu," says Weaving, "but Sonoma County and wine country in general are very different than that."
The restaurant offers a variety of vegetarian dishes, including a roasted beet Napoleon, a shiitake mushroom velouté and risotto with Parmesan, Weaving says. How could they not?
"Not everyone can say that the farm truck pulls right up to the back door of their restaurant everyday with fresh picked produce," says Dry Creek Kitchen chef Warren Bullock. "I'm pretty lucky and sometimes it's easy to forget that a large part of this country doesn't have the daily access to fresh produce and veggies that we do." Adds Weaving, "We're also very friendly toward pork and other meats, but anyone can walk in and have a plentiful and abundant meal."
- RAW INGREDIENTS These are some of the vegetables that show up on the back door at the Cry Creek Kitchen.