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Features

The New Vegetarianism

The New Vegetariansism


Vegetables muscle protein off centre stage And diners are winning
BY: CHRIS JOHNS

No longer the saddest, least inventive section of the menu, salads and vegetables in all their glory have assumed a central place in the life of some of our best restaurants.


Want to know one of the secrets to successful restaurant criticism? Order the salad. Even the simplest, most basic salad on the menu will tell you a lot. It’s the furthest thing from “critic bait,” but it’s a surefire way to gauge a restaurant’s seriousness. I’ve incorporated the salad test for years, and it’s never let me down.In fact, my penchant for a few good vegetables has led to some of my favourite discoveries. The sharp lattuga salad with almonds and white anchovies at Il Buco Alimentari in New York, the artichokes with mint and confit tomatoes at The Ivy in London, the poached turnip, salt-cured tuna loin (mojama) and kale salad at Bar Raval in Toronto.

Restaurants like those show that a salad in the right hands is every bit as compelling as anything that once had hooves or a beak. Although it’s happened without a lot of fanfare, I’d argue that the rise of roots, shoots and leaves to a place of prominence on high-end menus is one of the single most influential changes to dining out in the past 10 years. Vegetableforward cooking, from hardcore veganism and vegetarianism to various hybrids that utilize small amounts of everything from seafood to bone marrow, is now more than a fashion, it’s a full-fledged phenomenon. One of the earliest proponents of this style of cooking, and a chef well ahead of his time on the subject, is the legendary Alain Passard. He decided to eliminate red meat entirely from his menu (he still allows for seafood and fowl) at his threeMichelin-star Paris restaurant, Arpège, back in 2001. At the time the decision was met in France—home of tête de veau, boeuf Bourguignon and steak au poivre— with incredulity bordering on horror.

The Ivy

Anyone who thought the end of red meat meant the end of Passard, however, was sorely mistaken. Earlier this year Arpège was named the best dining destination in Europe by food blogger Steve Plotnicki in his annual Top 100+ Restaurants in Europe, based on the reviews of diners on his website Opinionated About Dining. Passard elevated vegetable-focused cooking to the highest possible level, and now many of his peers are following suit. Alain Ducasse surprised many when he reopened his flagship restaurant in the Plaza Athénée Hotel in 2015, after a year-long refurbishment, and announced he would remove nearly all meat and seafood from his menu.

For the opening he gathered together some of the most renowned gourmands in Europe and boldly announced: “Red meat is over—red meat is fini!” All of his vegetables are grown in the 17th-century gardens in Versailles, however, which may explain the 90-euro price for a single plate of them. Later this year, New York’s most influential chef, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, will open abcV, his much-anticipated and long-delayed vegetarian restaurant. Wisely, he’ll draw on influences from cuisines with a long history of vegetarian cooking. Expect dishes like saffron dosa with market flowers, buckwheat crepes, congee and a version of the South Asian lentil and rice dish called kitchari inspired by Deepak Chopra’s own recipe. Even the world’s most famous chef, René Redzepi of Copenhagen’s Noma—often named best restaurant in the world—plans to reopen his establishment next year with an exclusively vegetarian menu in the spring and summer, when the vegetables from his urban garden are at their prime.

Arpège

Here in Canada, there are plenty of examples of top restaurants emphasizing vegetables to delicious effect. In Montreal at Le Vin Papillon, from the foie gras-loving team behind Joe Beef, celeriac bagna cauda elevates a humble, gnarly root to something sublime. Chef David Hawksworth’s new Vancouver restaurant Nightingale offers roast cauliflower in a haute couture dressing of green harissa, and it chars carrots into an intense lushness, highlighting their flavour with a guajillo chili vinaigrette and lime yogurt. Toronto’s Dandylion might pair persimmons with black lentils or brighten a dish of granola and roast mushrooms with a bright egg yolk. Embracing a 100-per-cent plantbased menu, Toronto’s new Planta, from the talents behind Chase Hospitality Group and Nota Bene chef David Lee, is the most ambitious vegetable-focused restaurant to ever open in Canada. “Both Steven Salm (president of CHG) and I noticed an increasing amount of awareness and requests from our guests for sustainable, plant-based offerings,” Lee says. “We saw that there was a huge void in the Toronto market.


Nightingale

People who enjoy a plant-based diet want the same level of ambiance, service and attention to detail as anyone else, and there wasn’t anywhere in the city where they could experience that.” Planta aims to change that with a menu drawing on global influences with dishes ranging from coconut ceviche to fried kimchi dumplings, pizza with fennel “sausage” and cashew “mozzarella” to “crab” cakes built from hearts of palm. “From a practical side, it was difficult creating an entirely plant-based menu in a region where the harvest season is so short,” Lee admits, adding, “From a conceptual standpoint, it took us a few drafts to find the right balance of approachability and refinement.” No longer the saddest, least inventive section of the menu, salads and vegetables in all their glory have assumed a central place in the life of some of our best restaurants. With all of this attention and creativity moving into the salad section, I may soon have to start ordering the steak.
Planta

While the world’s top chefs are focusing their talents more and more on pure, simple vegetables, big chain grocery stores in Canada seem to be shrinking their produce departments in favour of prepackaged, processed foods. To find the best available produce—not organic, necessarily, but usually local and in season— people are turning to the weekly farmers’ markets that spring up in season. Canada has a rich history of exceptional year-round farmers’ markets, as well: Granville Island in Vancouver, Calgary Farmers’ Market, St. Lawrence and Kensington Markets in Toronto, Jean-Talon and Atwater in Montreal, the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market. Small, independent grocers are recognizing there’s demand for fresh, local produce, in season. Here are some of our favourites from across Canada.[vc_widget_sidebar sidebar_id=”sidebar”]

TORONTO

Cheese Boutique, cheeseboutique.com
Fiesta Farms, fiestafarms.ca 
Farm Boy, farmboy.ca

MONTREAL

Milano Fruiterie, milanofruiterie.com
Épicerie Latina, chezlatina.com
Supermarché PA, supermarchepa.com

VANCOUVER

Harvest Community Foods harvestunion.ca
Sunrise Market sunrise-market.ca
Urban Fare urbanfare.com

CALGARY

Market 17, market17.ca

ST. JOHN’S

Belbin’s Grocery, belbins.com

HALIFAX

Pete’s Fine Foodspetes.ca

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