In a cluster of new rooms, and in established restaurants all over town, we're celebrating salad day. Vegetables are no longer the supporting cast–they're the stars on the plate
It's a good thing I like nuts. At The Acorn—a warm space of dark-stained plywood walls and crafty jute-string lamps at Main and 24th—I started an evening's sampling of Our New Vegetarian Cuisine with a pâté built from walnut and portobello mushroom ($9). It was smooth, a little oleaginous, but nicely balanced with the sweet acidity of pickled shimeji mushrooms strewn atop. The best moment was the presentation: the server set a Mason jar on the table and popped the lid. A puff of camp smoke djinni'd up from within and in that moment the loamy look of the spread, the timber of the walls, the smell of fire—our senses aligned and we were transported to a primeval woodland...with a decent cocktail program. That was only the first of several tricks from chef/owner Brian Skinner, one of a brace of accomplished cooks opening intriguing and inventive meatless kitchens around town. Skinner (who staged at Copenhagen's top-reigning Noma) is keen on wordplay. Hen + Egg is a dish of hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, beluga lentils, and poached egg, as well as reference to a famous Noma dish. He likes visual puns (that smoke curling off the chilled mushrooms), and even some taste bud trickery. My favourite dish was halloumi ($19), a salty semi-soft sheep-and-goat's milk cheese that Skinner batters and serves atop a zucchini fritter and a mash of green peas. The revelation was in the taste. I've been a vegetarian for almost 25 years, but I still remember what makes fish 'n' chips work: the right balance of salt, fat, lemon, tang, and squeak. This had all five in spades, without a halibut or even potato in sight. It's not a dish to replace the original but it does, as the server cheerfully predicted on presenting the tower, scratch the same itch. *Note to readers: the original print version of this article tagged The Union as home of the halloumi fish 'n' chips. This was incorrect. The dish is a product of The Acorn's vegetable wizardry.
Union Street's The Parker has been drawing a similar mix of gourmand vegetarians and carnivore lookyloos. In fact, the rooms share many elements: like Skinner, Parker chef Jason Leizert (ex-Boneta, but he worked with co-owner/bartender Steve Da Cruz at the Corner Suite Bistro De Luxe before) eats meat but wanted to open a restaurant that could celebrate local farms. Like The Acorn, The Parker is tiny (20 seats to The Acorn's 48), nicely designed, liquor-friendly, and crammed. We waited 45 minutes for a table at The Acorn on a Sunday night (there are no reservations) and almost that long at The Parker-with a reservation. Keep reading. That's almost enough time for Leizert, who sources much of the provender locally, to overhaul the whole menu, it shifts so frequently. The suggestion is five shared plates for two, so we picked ours-mostly the same as our neighbours' (more on that in a moment) and let the dishes arrive as Leizert and his sous were able. The ballet required to cook in a four-foot cone of space off the bar is remarkable. We started with nuts (again), this time remarkably sweet Agassiz hazelnuts in a dukka ($4) whose spicing-cumin, coriander, chili-was perfect. The crisps of deep-fried taro root accompanying the Egyptian crumble were fun to handle, efficient for scooping, but bland on the tongue. Fries ($5) were gloriously comforting for the garlic and milk that anchored the chickpea flour; I found the housemade ketchup a little bright in tomato and vinegar but neighbouring tables oohed. (A word about our neighbours: The Parker is making good use of a small space, but cramming tables so close, when the room is full, means hearing the recitation of provenance and technique three times for the same dish in as many minutes; either the service becomes family-style or staff need new patter.) Not everything was perfect. A potato gratin with roasted garlic confit'd to approximate a meaty depth was tasty when crisp but didn't last well on the plate (hungry, we still ordered a second); a beet dish was molecular gastronomy gone wrong: all the foams and reductions and slow-cooking barely budged the basic flavour profile and resulted in a pretty but fussy plate that didn't reward in taste the obvious labour involved. The star of the night-another vegetarian imposter-was a cassoulet of firm beans with braised kohlrabi, chanterelle mushrooms, cheese, hollandaise, and a poached egg atop ($15). It's at this juncture-this moment of crunch and slurp, of depth and sweetness and silk and herby garlicky shallotitude, that we can definitively say: this ain't no hippie food. This is confident, assertive cooking that celebrates not just an eating philosophy, but geography and sensuality.
Feast your Eyes: See our 20 (Veggie) Dishes to Taste Before you Die
The third entrant-South Granville's Heirloom-is the prettiest room and least successful in its cooking, though ingredients and presentation display moments of excellence. The space, formerly Primo's Mexican Grill, is freshly whitewashed and bright by day, softly candlelit (and packed) at night. The food, by Georgia Morley, a former personal chef to Lululemon's Chip Wilson, is international, with curries, chilies, salads, pastas, and a tempeh Reuben rubbing shoulders. I liked the mushrooms in cream sauce ($16) and a salad with fennel, pear, and Brussels sprouts ($15), but there was an overall heaviness-of avocado (best used in startlingly light fries dusted with paprika) and coconut and oil and, especially, cashew-that wore me down. If you were to attempt to convince a super-heavyweight Greco-Roman weight lifter that a plant diet can be filling (co-owner Yogi Johl represented Canada at the '96 Games), here's the place.
For the rest of us...
Food allergies and gluten insensitivities are on the rise. Vegetarianism remains around five percent in the States, but flexitarianism, vegevorism, and Meatless Mondays have all entered pop culture. Even fast food like KFC and McDonald's is going veg. The question, though, remains: why bother opening a vegetarian/vegan restaurant at all? Can an omnivore restaurant not respond with equal intelligence and gusto to the seasons? I've had lovely veggie meals at Grub on Main Street, without feeling like I was bumming everyone out. The Four Seasons' Yew instituted a vegan lunch/dinner menu 18 months ago, and their quinoa and smoked tofu ($23) is a smart, healthy main. (The avocado taco starter, $11, is the bomb.) However the business plans play out, I'm delighted to see this shift-let's call it a soil change-away from menus with the one risotto or pasta afterthought I used to endure. The New York Times recently spoke of L.A.'s new wave of omnivore restaurants "that court vegans and vegetarians (particularly the glamorous and powerful ones who are a crucial engine of the dining economy) by preparing meatless dishes that surpass the droopy steamed-vegetable platters of yore." For all those entrepreneurs and these, I remain grateful.