The relentless onslaught of bad health news about meats like bacon and well-marbled steak certainly had its effect, but then so did our continuing tendency to worship small farmers at the shrines of Local, Seasonal, and Sustainable. Let’s face it — those terms mainly apply to fruits, vegetables, and grains, no matter how much we tenderly coddle our cows and chickens. Somehow, over the last few years, the consumption of vegetable matter became elevated in our minds to a positive virtue of the highest order, both morally and nutritionally, as the masses quaffed Jamba Juice and office workers slipped out for "just a salad" at lunch.
This adulation of vegetarianism was reflected in a broad range of restaurants, too. While the small-dish movement began by reproducing traditional Spanish tapas, many of the small dishes gradually became small vegetarian dishes. At full-menu establishments, the proportion of meatless apps and entrees zoomed. And a new crop of low-meat and meat-free restaurants at the bistro level has appeared over the past year or two in certain neighborhoods — mainly the East Village, Lower East Side, and Williamsburg.
But the reasons for this sea change were not all ethical and nutritional. As meat prices soared, restaurateurs found they could charge the same amount for a plate of artfully arranged veggies as for a plate of meat, salvaging profits in the process. And a key result of this vegetable-centricity has been a gaggle of new restaurants serving strictly vegetarian and even vegan meals. The new spots flaunted all the bells and whistles one expects from upscale dining, including name chefs, prix fixe options, and sophisticated wine lists. Flesh be damned.
But wait a minute, aren’t vegetarian restaurants traditionally awful? A decade ago a large proportion of them were, focusing on bland food low in fat and salt, emphasizing healthfulness over flavor. Many of their recipes were descended from the hippie vegetarian cuisine of the 60s, in which pedestrian vegetables would be stir-fried with a touch of tamari, then dumped over brown rice. Other recipes derived from English vegetarianism of the 19th century, often involving cooked-to-death casseroles with plenty of cheese. A third strain of vegetarianism promoted rubbery and chemical-laden meat substitutes made from TVP.
All that began to change a few years ago, in what might be termed a vegetable liberation movement. Sourcing their raw materials ostentatiously from farmers’ markets, the new vegetarian restaurants paid much more attention to making the food exciting. What’s more, rather than eschewing fat and salt, they reintegrated those wonderful ingredients, realizing that they were the essence of a meaty meal’s appeal. Almost overnight, many committed carnivores began feeling as much enthusiasm for vegetarian fare as they once reserved for meat.
The revolution began in the East Village. Dirt Candy appeared in 2008 near Tompkins Square in a tiny storefront, making vegetables gorgeous in sculpted compositions that emphasized color and shape. During the same era, old-timer Angelica Kitchen hired a second chef to pursue more ambitious vegetarian cuisine, while still slinging the traditional hippie stuff. In summer of 2014, Dimes appeared on Canal Street,emphasizing egg breakfasts, grain bowls with goji berries, and salads heavy with avocados, seeds, and nuts. The menu also deployed bacon and chicken in relatively small quantities, as if aimed at patrons who wanted to become vegetarians, but still had a step or two to go.
Later that year, Semilla materialized in Williamsburg, where José Ramírez-Ruiz and Pam Yung offered multi-course meals that, in the winter when it first opened, emphasized roots and grains, treating the former almost like meats in massive roasts delectably sauced. I watched in awe one icy evening as Ramirez-Ruiz pulled a daikon the size of a small dog from a braising pan, and began cutting it in thick, greasy slices.
Barely into the new year Wassail debuted, a festive Lower East Side spot under chef Joseph Buenconsejo that took a science chef approach to vegetarian cooking. He made gorgeous little sculptures of hakurei turnips and maitake mushrooms, cut into precise shapes and flooded with foam. He surprised us with unusual ingredients such as borage oil and cocoa nibs in savory uses. Wassail’s beverage program was unusual, too, consisting of ciders from around the world. Today’s modern vegetarian restaurant relishes being quirky as hell.
Next came El Rey, a tiny storefront on the Lower East Side that started out as a coffee shop, but then began serving wildly creative vegetarian snacks such as kale salad (a vegetarian concoction that has become ubiquitous on area menus), flatbread with avocado mash (making gluten popular once again), and chia seed pudding (proving that the tiny seeds can be more than a tonsure for your chia pet). Later, the menu was expanded to include more-ambitious dinners.
No one was too surprised when Brooks Headley, longtime head pastry chef at Del Posto, hung up his toque and abandoned the world of meat. He took over the old Dirt Candy space to found micro-fast-food establishment Superiority Burger. The lines soon ran out the door with patrons who marveled that a vegan hamburger could taste every bit as good as a beef-bearing one, and the place soon garnered two stars from the Times’ Pete Wells. Next came Avant Garden, also near Tompkins Square, where the dining room was more like an amphitheater, allowing patrons to watch a trio of cooks assembling flesh-free tartines on artisanal, gluten-bearing bread, and fancifully composed vegan dishes, both cold and hot.
Even restaurants that didn’t go all the way with the new vegetarianism still climbed in bed with some of its dietetic practices. A case in point is Bruno Pizza, a new café that Ryan Sutton famously adored and Pete Wells detested. Scan its menu and find that nearly half its menu is vegetarian, with the veggie-centric dishes featuring the kind of salty and exotic combinations featured at places like Dirt Candy and Dimes. What’s more, the new vegetarianism is spawning a whole generation of vegetarian carnivores, eating meat occasionally with relish, but also seeking out vegetarian restaurants, not because they want to eat healthy, but because they simply enjoy the food. Thus are the city’s dining preferences changing, one delicious bite at a time.