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.
Details: Vegetarian dining in meat-centric restaurants
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.
A vegan joins the game
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.