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Beet Surrender

In a world where meat rules, North Bay chefs showcase local vegetables at the center of the plate

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"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.
  • 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."

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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.
  • RAW INGREDIENTS These are some of the vegetables that show up on the back door at the Cry Creek Kitchen.

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