We have just dropped a bombshell at the meat-centric Mintwood Place — we want a vegetarian meal — but the server doesn’t flinch. “Of course,” she says with a smile. “I’m vegetarian myself, so I totally know where you’re coming from.” She points out a few options on the menu, all of them appetizers except for the lone entree, a five-grain risotto topped with wood-grilled vegetables. When one of us mutters that it’s great but he’s had it before, she utters the words we were hoping to hear: “Would you like me to see if Chef wants to make you something special?”
We look at each other, look at the server and nod, a little sheepishly. As The Post’s food critic and Food editor, we resist special treatment at restaurants, but tonight is different. We’re on a mission, and Mintwood is just one part of the hunt. One of us (the editor) is a new vegetarian, the other (the critic) would like to eat less meat, and so the two of us have decided to ask some of our favorite chefs two questions: Could you hold the meat, please? And is having more vegetarian options too much to ask?
We’re not alone in this pursuit. According to a 2012 poll by Harris Interactive for the Vegetarian Resource Group, 4 percent of Americans qualify as vegetarian, but 47 percent eat at least one vegetarian meal a week. And in a 2008 VRG poll, more than 55 percent of respondents said they order a vegetarian or vegan meal in a restaurant at least some of the time. That was enough to prompt the National Restaurant Association in 2010, after surveying chefs, to include vegetarian and vegan dining on its list of top trends.
None of which makes finding good vegetarian dishes in area restaurants a no-brainer. The lofty places are easy: CityZen and Volt and Komi are among dining rooms with ambitious vegetarian tasting menus. Rasika reveres vegetables, with more than a dozen possibilities. (One new favorite: the wild mushroom uttapam, a rice-and-lentil pancake with beet chutney at Rasika West End.) And on the cheaper side, you’ve got falafel, pizza, Ethiopian. But some of the buzziest spots — the ambitious places you could see yourself eating as a regular — seem to have few or no vegetarian possibilities on menus packed with meat.
Or at least not among the entrees. The appetizer lineup is often a haven for vegetarians, and the small-plates trend erases many of the distinctions. But just try to find a meatless main course “secondi” at a traditional Italian place, and you’ll instead be steered toward a pasta or risotto or pizza. Not that there’s anything wrong with those, of course, but if you love vegetables you crave bites that elevate them, not overwhelm them with carbs and cheese. As much as we relish the first few spoonfuls of the decadent risotto at Bibiana Osteria Enoteca, for instance, it is so rich with Taleggio (seemingly equal parts cheese and rice) that we are tempted to ask for celery sticks or crackers to dip into it.
Noodles and risotto are a fallback for a lot of kitchens simply because “they’re dry and they’re there,” says chef Bryan Voltaggio, who assures us that his pastas are made in house in all his restaurants, including the tony Volt in Frederick and the sprawling Range in Washington.
Initially, though, the menu at Range has us worried. Among its 10 sections, only four include vegetarian options: a couple of pizzas, a few salads, baked goods and “accompaniments.” Our ruddy-faced young waiter seems to read our minds: “We’re pretty protein-driven.” But after a quick conference with the kitchen, he returns with ideas. A kimchi linguine that normally comes with uni and bay scallops gets maitake mushrooms and little wisps of kale instead, and an off-the-menu lasagna layers thin sheets of poached Yukon Gold potatoes with a tomato marmalade and garlicky chanterelles. Chef de cuisine Matt Hill gets credit for the latter, a $16 wonder, aromatic with orange zest (and vegan-friendly).
Veganism, of course, raises the bar even higher. So for another meal, we enlist the stomach of someone who has avoided animal products for decades. Saurabh Dalal, president of the Vegetarian Society of DC, joins us for dinner on turf that’s even meatier than Range’s: J&G Steakhouse in the W Hotel.
In his 47 years, the Mumbai native says, he has never knowingly eaten meat; for the past 22 he has followed a vegan diet. But his routine isn’t austere. “I live to eat,” he says. Dalal’s job as a physicist puts him on the road (“New Orleans is tough”), where to avoid the standby baked potato he consults HappyCow.net . Here at home, he eats out four to five meals a week and finds plenty to fill up on: at Science Club near Dupont Circle, Ovo Simply Veggie in College Park, the monthly vegan brunch at Muse in the Corcoran Gallery of Art and Sunflower in Falls Church, which he likes for its vegan “sushi.”
Tonight at J&G, we consult our astute server, because all of the entrees and grilled items are off-limits, and ask for the kitchen’s help. Dinner begins with salads, initially a letdown only because salads are so predictable. But these are a breed apart, an elegant mix of beets, olives, minced basil, red chilies (executive chef Philippe Reininger loves heat) and more, modified from the market salad (hold the cheese) on the menu. For main courses, Reininger thoughtfully weaves together components already listed in other dishes on the menu to create fashion statements. Pan-seared tofu on a Malaysian-style ginger and chili sauce is cooled down with diced celery and basil oil. For a second dish, he arranges root vegetables and tiny mushrooms with parsnip chips, olive crumbs and a swipe of parsnip puree made with fresh coconut. Our server couldn’t be more conscientious about detailing each plate. We aren’t eating meat, but he makes us feel as welcome as the guys ordering the 20-ounce, $54 bone-in rib-eye.
Fast-forward to Marcel’s, where we have to look past courses one, two, three, four and even five on the French menu before seeing any meat-free options (in the cheese and dessert sections). Chef Robert Wiedmaier is known for his boudin blanc and rack of lamb; could he be as masterful with vegetables? After we make our desires known to the gregarious waiter, we find out.
While other diners are greeted with an amuse bouche of short ribs and foie gras in a tiny twist of pastry, we receive a “bonbon” filled with pureed butternut squash and set on a sassy chili glaze. Nice. A wavy black bowl in the shape of a shell holds slow-cooked lentils, caramelized onions and butter-roasted dates in a cup of brik pastry, an Indian-inspired appetizer dusted with cayenne and turmeric. Next up: a timbale of sweet pea puree captured in a tent of steamed bibb lettuce, and feathery-light egg noodles draped in a light pesto and curled around roasted vegetables. A four-part garden party follows: sunny yellow squash gratin over spinach, truffle-treated asparagus and artichokes, a tiny skillet of Peruvian and other potatoes, plus a divine saffron risotto (of course) dappled with chive oil.
Marcel’s gets fewer than 15 requests for meatless dinners a month; carnivores, you have no idea what you’re missing.
“Back 20 years ago,” says Wiedmaier, a kitchen that got a vegetarian request would react with disdain: “What the hell is this?” Now, he says, “we want to give that diner the experience of their lifetime.” Voltaggio agrees, adding that vegetables might even be more fun than meat for chefs to prepare because vegetables let cooks “apply every technique in their arsenal: smoke, grill, steam, saute.” Bottom line: “You can’t steam beef,” jokes Voltaggio.
Like their peers around town, both chefs appreciate some advance notice, not because they don’t have suitable ingredients, but because they have an abundance of them. Extra time translates into more thoughtful plates.
Sometimes, though, vegetable-focused dishes have been part of the restaurant’s plan from the beginning. That was the case at Estadio in Logan Circle, where a vegan colleague’s praise prompted us to pull up chairs at the bar for the final phase of our hunt.
Now, Spain is revered for a lot of things, but not so much for its vegetarian fare. That point is driven home at Estadio, where the bar overlooking the exhibition kitchen is decorated with a menagerie of pigs. But with so many vegetarian options on chef Haidar Karoum’s menu, there’s no need to request custom cooking.
What a great last supper! A spread of pureed fava beans and ground almonds, embedded in thumb-size breadsticks, finds us mentally taking notes for our next cocktail parties. The creamy dip, dusky with Spanish smoked paprika, plays like a jazzier hummus. While we’ve each consumed fields of Brussels sprouts in the past year, we agree that the deep-fried dish at Estadio, tossed with toasted pine nuts and currants swollen with sherry vinegar, sets itself apart from the bunch. The chef calls the small plate his “juggernaut,” and rightly so: It’s requested an average of 50 times a night. Kale ignited with crushed red pepper flakes and splashed with sherry adds a Spanish twist to another dream green. A bocadillo bursting with smoky grilled peppers, eggplant, red onions and julienned carrots is a $4 sandwich that begs for another round; a slice of grilled bread slathered with crushed tomato and glistening with olive oil reminds us of the joy of simplicity. When we finally push ourselves away from our perch, we are all smiles — and not just because we couldn’t stop at one sherry cocktail.
Even so, the meal that has lingered in our minds, weeks after we first devoured it, is the one at Mintwood, where chef-owner Cedric Maupillier comes up with a stunner: a vegetable napoleon that arrives at our table looking like the model for an architectural masterpiece, one with a green roof and siding made of green and yellow wax beans. The foundation is flammekueche, an Alsatian onion tart he has cut into thin planks. In between their layers: smears of romesco sauce, perfectly fitted rectangles of eggplant, those beans, and wood-grilled Brussels sprout halves and cauliflower florets. On top: microgreens, frisee, chives, mushrooms and a drizzle of pumpkin seed oil. The cost: $19, on a menu where entrees average $26.
The five-grain risotto we order off the menu is as beautiful as always, this time made with and topped by five varieties of squash. But the napoleon takes our breath away. When we dig in, it’s clear: This is nothing short of an exaltation of vegetables. One of us — the vegetarian, as it happens — looks up mid-bite and sees Maupillier half-grinning and half-grimacing from the kitchen and pointing our way, as if to say, “I’m glad you like it, but why did you do this to me?”
In fact, when we talk to him later, he says, “That turned my night upside down.” For a chef whose restaurant is designed primarily around meat, fish and poultry dishes to pull off a vegetarian entree on the fly, “it was like a Quickfire, you know,” he says, referring to the challenge that starts off every episode of Bravo’s “Top Chef.” “I had three minutes to figure something out. And I didn’t have time to make something from scratch.”
He remembered that the flammekueche on his brunch menu doesn’t use bacon, he saw the jelled romesco sauce he usually drapes over frog legs, he had the wood-grilled vegetables he usually serves as sides, and he thought: napoleon. “I immediately saw it come together. I didn’t have time to try it, but I thought it looked beautiful. You always do your best cooking when you don’t plan, when you’re busiest.” Then he catches himself. That romesco sauce uses gelatin, an animal product frowned upon by staunch vegetarians and vegans. “I would’ve lost the Quickfire,” he says.
Why didn’t he have a dish like that on the menu already? Simple. “Because I didn’t know it was possible to do it until you asked me to,” he says.
Honestly, he wouldn’t have made it for anyone else. Well, maybe for a regular who asked in advance, saying he had eaten the risotto enough times and wanted something different. But not on the spur of the moment. And the chef seems torn about the consequences now that he has.
“I normally wouldn’t put that on my menu because of the steps,” he says. “I design my menu around my equipment, and to balance the food costs, and the space.”
Maupillier doesn’t exactly want Mintwood to become known as a vegetarian mecca. At the same time, the more he thinks about it, he realizes something: “I think it would sell a lot,” he says. “Because once they had it, they would want it again.” Maybe a redesign of his menu is in order after all, just to accommodate the napoleon; for one thing, he’d use agar agar to jell that romesco next time.
Besides, Maupillier says, everyone should be eating more vegetables: “We are smarter than 30 years ago, but I’m still a caveman.” That might not always be true. “Maybe one day I will be a vegetarian, too,” he says. “And I hope I’ll have someone to cook vegetables for me.”
More from Food: