The dragon roll (tempura broccoli, spinach, avocado) at Planta in Bethesda. (Deb Lindsey/for The Washington Post)
6 min

Unrated during the pandemic.

First impressions of a restaurant aren’t always initiated by what passes your lips. Some customers start forming opinions the moment they log on to an establishment’s website, call with a question, turn their car keys over to a valet (parkers are coming back!), stroll up to a host stand or, in my case at the youthful Planta in Bethesda, scan the room to see who their fellow diners will be.

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Did the United Nations buy out the place? It sure looks that way, judging from the sea of faces that fill the restaurant on a routine basis. This is not a scene I expected in Bethesda, whose population is more than 75 percent White, and at a time when the country is as divided as it is. Frankly, I’m shocked, as in delighted, to see a rainbow coalition also embracing a mix of sexes and ages, especially in a restaurant where meat isn’t served.

Planta, launched in 2016 by founder Steven Salm and chef David Lee, sprouted its first location in Toronto and has grown to nine plant-based restaurants in Canada and the United States (an offshoot in Fort Lauderdale is next). Lee, a London native who immigrated to Canada in 1994, offers a concise menu that manages to cover sushi, pizza, pasta and links to his Chinese heritage. Regarding the spread, “it’s for everybody,” says the chef, who practices what he preaches weekdays but sometimes eats fish on weekends.

There’s no sunnier meat-free zone in the area. Light streams into the corner space, whose smart couches, parked near the windows, offer prime people-watching and whose bar is awash in shiny green tile. Custom-designed botanical wallpaper turns a section of the dining room into a cross between a garden and a gallery. It sounds lulling, but a full house and lounge-y soundtrack require diners to pipe up and lean in at dinner.

My first taste from the kitchen didn’t endear me. A white pizza managed to be both burned on the bottom and underbaked on top. It didn’t help that the pie was trailed by a frisee salad packing eggplant, lentils, pomegranate and tahini that tasted like a bunch of ingredients meeting for the first time and not having much in common.

The hero of my maiden meal was a bowl of deep-fried broccoli florets dappled with peanut and sweet chile sauces. Dredged in cornstarch and rice flour before hitting hot oil, the crackling vegetable was, like Dolly Parton, impossible not to like. “Bang bang” broccoli made enough of an impression that I booked twice more at Planta. Surely there were more such attractions on the menu.

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Sure enough, an order of cauliflower tots sustained my interest. Made with grated cauliflower and potato, the balls are tanned in the fryer and finished with a dollop of “aioli” spun from chickpea flour, lemon juice and mustard and scented with truffle. The result is crisp and creamy, at once homespun and highfalutin. Shredded beets crowned with creamy avocado are the Kit Kat of appetizers, fusing flavors you might not expect to agree but convince you otherwise when you taste them together. A blast of lime juice, a garnish of pine nuts and a frame of taro chips, sturdy enough to tackle the spread, heighten the pleasure. Lee seems to be channeling his family with sheer, spinach-filled steamed dumplings that any Chinese restaurant would be happy to claim as their own. A finish of chile oil and Sichuan peppercorns gives the dish a nice roar.

Restaurants from out of town often use crab cakes to entice locals. Planta’s nod to regional pride is a dip that assigns hearts of palm to the seafood role. When cooked, the hearts of palm, which Planta sources from a farmer in Hawaii, break down, release their juices and gain creaminess with the addition of what tastes like remoulade. Old Bay makes the “crab” dip even more believable.

There are no faux meats at Planta. Instead, the chain relies on the power of plants to make a statement. The rich tomato sauce draping a plate of tender, snail-shaped pasta gets its heat from Calabrian chiles and its gentle sweetness from coconut milk. What you sense as cheese is actually cashew “mozzarella.”

Pizzas have gotten better every visit, by the way. My last — a nicely chewy “bianca” pizza perked up with olives, onions, capers — came streaked with chile oil and cooked to a shade of gold. The sliced potatoes that contribute to the pizza’s name added heft and rosemary fragrance.

A disarmingly honest server responded to my request for mushroom “bacon” sushi with a cautionary tale: “Half the people who order it return it,” he said. Of course I ordered it — and failed to finish the pad of tofu skin stretched over mushrooms sullied with an acrid liquid smoke. The more convincing sushi swaps out tuna for “ahi” watermelon, the rind of which is pickled and the dehydrated flesh splashed with a citrusy soy dressing. Better still is a dragon roll, fetching in green — avocado, spinach, tempura broccoli — ramped up with a respectable vegetarian double for eel sauce.

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Service is as consistent as the room is diverse. Planta trains its staff a minimum of two weeks, during which time workers are required to pass four tests that go beyond food and drink knowledge to include background information on the founders and even design questions. (Like the water glasses? “They’re made by Fortessa.”) The company then retains employees with carrots including medical and dental insurance, gym discounts, referral bonuses, half off meals at all Plantas — even pet insurance discounts. Maybe the perks account for the enthusiasm I’ve repeatedly encountered. The young crew is informed, engaged, cared for and quick, like the night my server sprinted out the door and down the block to reunite a couple of diners with their forgotten leftovers. (As with an increasing number of restaurants, this one doesn’t require workers to be vaccinated or masked, although the servers I encountered all wore coverings.)

Early impressions matter, but time with a restaurant gives diners a better sense of potential. Three dates with Planta suggest it’s the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Just say yes to “bang bang” broccoli and no to mushroom “bacon.”


4910 Elm St., Bethesda. 301-407-2447. Open: Indoor dining, delivery and takeout 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday. Prices: Appetizers $6.25 to $18.25, entrees $18.50 to $25.50. Sound check: 78 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: No barriers to entry; restrooms are ADA-compliant. Pandemic protocols: Staff are not required to be vaccinated or wear masks.