The most talked-about dish at PYT, a forward-thinking restaurant from Los Angeles chef Josef Centeno, takes 15 minutes for the kitchen to execute and is introduced with the kind of ceremony typically reserved for Dover sole or chateaubriand.
Centeno, or one of his staff, ferries the signature on a ceramic plate to the table, where the chef chips away an armor of kosher salt and egg white and frees the main event from the anise-scented, heart-shaped hoja santa leaf in which it’s baked. Next, he quarters the centerpiece and embellishes it with a nettle chimichurri. Crumbled feta cheese follows, as do a sugar snap pea pesto, house-made pomegranate molasses and shaved walnuts.
The recipient of all the attention? A turnip. Laugh if you will, but the vegetable, plucked from a nearby organic school garden supported by PYT, is a serious pleasure, caramelly and slightly peppery going down. Not for nothing did Los Angeles Magazine proclaim the baked turnip “dish of the year” last December.
Beet tartare. Cauliflower “steak.” Bolognese pumped up not with ground meat but with minced vegetables. If you’ve been out to eat lately, chances are you’re seeing what I am: vegetables on the center of the plate and chefs according them VIP treatment.
A prime splurge at the French-American Convivial in Washington is Cedric Maupillier’s bouquet of vegetables arranged on hazelnut soubise, garnished with sliced black truffles and cooked in parchment paper. Sliced open as diners watch, the packet releases a cloud made fragrant with smoked celeriac, butternut squash and more. At the three-month-old Esker Grove in the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, chef Doug Flicker makes an entree of brined sauteed parsnips, which he cuts into slices and wedges, drapes with caramelized goat’s milk and sauteed escarole and finishes with a bold coffee-onion crumble. Forget nose-to-tail dining; vegetables, declares Flicker, are “the new innards.”
No less a trailblazer than Jean-Georges Vongerichten, whose culinary empire embraces 34 restaurants around the world, just launched ABCV in the ABC Carpet & Home store in New York. The chef’s first all-vegetarian restaurant (the “V” in the title represents vegetable, vibration and Vongerichten) features plant-based food from around the world and a chef de cuisine, Neal Harden, who has been a vegetarian “since he was 6 years old,” says his boss. A new vegetable-oriented restaurant in Chicago takes the carrot cake for best name: Bad Hunter.
Yet in no other American city are you as likely to find more (and more varied) ways to skip meat and fill up on vegetables than Los Angeles, a rainbow coalition of 4 million people and a dazzling restaurant scene that embraces a global buffet, with Chinese, Mexican and Southeast Asian especially well-represented.
On a recent 48-hour graze-a-thon, I took in the pleasures of Destroyer, a neighborhood cafe in Culver City with a Nordic sensibility from chef Jordan Kahn; Trejo’s Tacos, a stylish vegan-welcoming taqueria created by Mexican American actor Danny Trejo; and Kismet, a fledgling Middle Eastern cafe whose draws include roasted spiced mushrooms sharing a bowl with braised chickpeas, a hit of green chile and almond broth. The designer labels at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills extend to chef Matthew Kenney, the wellness and raw-food guru whose eponymous dining room on the third floor of the store serves rethought taco salads and Reuben sandwiches to the ladies who lunch. The former shape up with hearts of palm and sunflower “chorizo”; the latter finds pastrami-flavored roasted cauliflower between slices of rye bread. On the chalkboard menu at soul food purveyor My Two Cents: “chickenless” and dumplings.
“No question, L.A. is the epicenter of a plant-based lifestyle,” says Colleen Holland, publisher and co-founder of the San Francisco-based VegNews. In the magazine’s forthcoming May issue, the City of Angels is ranked the No. 1 vegan city in the United States, followed by New York City; Philadelphia; Portland, Ore.; Oakland; Miami; Chicago; Dallas; Las Vegas and Detroit.
The shift to more and better vegetable dishes away from home is a reaction to changing tastes among diners and chefs who have spent careers around foie gras and other rich ingredients and are looking for relief. According to Experian/Mintel, the percentage of U.S. consumers who identify as vegetarians increased by 3 percentage points (to 9.8 percent) between 2012 and 2015. Market researcher Mintel also reported that 38 percent of consumers agreed there should be more meat alternatives in restaurants.
Blessed with fabulous produce and the assumption of quality, Los Angeles is a natural source of inspiration for cooks. “My neighborhood grocery store is the Santa Monica Farmers Market,” humble-brags Jeremy Fox, chef of the esteemed Rustic Canyon eight blocks away. Warm weather encourages meatless eating, too. “You can get a damn good salad in Minneapolis,” says Patric Kuh, restaurant critic for Los Angeles Magazine. “But we have conditions that make vegetable eating the natural choice.” In Minneapolis, he says, “there’s no moment when there’s three feet of snow outside and anyone says, ‘I’ll have a salad.’ ”
Fox, the visionary behind one of the best vegetarian restaurants in the country, the late Ubuntu in Napa, Calif., cooks with meat and seafood these days. Indeed, one of the most popular dishes on the menu at Rustic Canyon is pozole verde with clams. But a rival for diners’ affection is a dish of yams staged with green garlic butter, pickled onions, aioli and hazelnut dukkah (an Egyptian spice blend), instructions for which are included in Fox’s just-released “On Vegetables” (Phaidon), a collection of 150 recipes with the home cook in mind.
The success of the produce-driven yam dish drives home a modern point: “No deprivation, no compromise,” says Holland of VegNews. In Los Angeles in particular, chefs aren’t using vegan products trying to be meat. Rather, chefs are turning plants into “superstars.”
She’s right. One bite of the shredded cabbage pancake with braised eggplant and chili hoisin at Erven, the fresh vegan eatery from chef Nick Erven in Santa Monica, leads to another, and just about everything at PYT, the scene of my favorite meat-free meal last month, deserves a shout-out.
“The way I cook now is the way I want to feel afterward,” says Centeno. His menu features a bountiful chef’s salad that tastes like the Garden of Eden was anointed with walnut marigold dressing, along with a hand-milled rye-and-oat porridge he perks up with pickled beet greens, pecorino and “Chicharron at 9 o’clock at night isn’t the easiest thing to recover from the next day. Eating vegetables, I feel better.”Urfa chile. (PYT refers not to the Michael Jackson song, “Pretty Young Thing,” says its chef, but to any number of vegetables: Pretty Young Turnip, Pretty Yellow Tomato — you get his drift.)
Proof that toast can accommodate more than the ubiquitous avocado is the sesame whole-wheat bread spread with house-made labneh and plancha-warmed broccoli at Kismet. One of two chefs there, Sara Kramer attributes L.A.’s passion for vegetables to people who are “focused on feeling good” and “a rich bounty available all year long, as long as it rains.” But the local sentiment goes deeper. Vegetable-centric diets, she says, “are better for us and better for the planet.”
Consumer demand helped shape the scene. “People who eat a plant-based diet are very loyal,” says former film producer Ash Shah, a co-owner of Trejo’s Tacos on La Brea Avenue. “Once people start catering to them, they keep coming back.” Sharing the menu with tacos dressed with steak asada and fried chicken are organic tortillas scattered with seared carrots and tofu, spiced like chorizo, as well as young jackfruit, refreshing in combination with tomatillo slaw (and, if you like, kombucha on tap). Three more taquerias are planned for this summer, near the University of Southern California, Silver Lake and Pasadena.
Trend trackers trace the contemporary vegetable focus trend to five-year-old Sqirl, a neighborhood restaurant with national impact, whose owner, Jessica Koslow, is “practically vegan except she has a soft spot for bacon,” jokes Kuh of Los Angles Magazine. Besha Rodell, the restaurant critic at LA Weekly, says Koslow, a promoter of breakfast salads and grain bowls, was among the early chefs to mix vegetarian, vegan and meaty dishes on her menu, and to do so without calling attention to the practice. Sqirl, says the critic, “broke vegan food out of its hippie prison a bit.”
For her part, Koslow attributes the outsize interest in vegetables to L.A.’s reputation as “a driving city.” Unlike in other parts of the country, she says, L.A. chefs tend to jump in their cars to shop at produce-endowed farm markets (as opposed to farmers dropping off their wares at restaurants). To appeal to the many customers at Sqirl who order her food to go, Koslow now features sturdy bok choy as her “major leaf” in salads. Once it’s dressed, “arugula has no life span,” she explains.
Southern California has a long history of eating healthfully, and of getting teased for its sauce-on-the-side-please mentality. As “the premiere sanitarium destination for the infirm and the invalid” at the turn of the 20th century, Los Angeles called to tuberculosis tourists and others with establishments including the Vegetarian Restaurant, opened in 1903, writes Josh Kuhn in “To Live and Dine in L.A.” In the 1930s, the thriving vegetarian and raw food movements were represented by restaurants including the Nut Kettle, which sold a nut burger, and Hain’s Health Foods, where alfalfa candy, seaweed and vegetable bologna could be washed back with a “Potassium Broth” of celery and spinach. (The dishes were all listed on a menu entitled “You’re Not in Iowa Anymore.”)
During the heyday of frozen foods, writes Kuhn, a former Marine and failed Tarzan actor named Jim Baker introduced the Aware Inn on Sunset Boulevard in 1957. Organic fruits and vegetables and free-range chickens were part of the restaurant’s drill. When a critic from Gourmet ate there in 1974, she found the food “alarmingly nutritious.”
Much of the meatless food I’ve been eating of late has been alarmingly good. My last taste of Los Angeles is where I started, two days earlier at LAX. Looking for some fuel to sustain me for the five-hour flight back to Washington, I make a pit-stop at ink.sack, with creative sandwiches by Michael Voltaggio of “Top Chef” fame. As my teeth sink into a bahn mi stuffed with barbecue tofu, tangy vegetables and mushroom spread, I remember something my guide Patric Kuh told me about eating vegetables: “You can do it for ethical reasons, or because it tastes damn good.”