Back in the day, the meat-avoiding traveler had to pack plenty of trail mix, because even an urban vacation could feel like a hike along the Appalachian Trail when mealtime rolled around. Even a city like New York, with its falafel chains and ubiquitous Indian restaurants, raw-food cafes and even vegan diners, could seem like a wasteland if a vegetarian tried to move into a higher-end dining room.
Or so I’ve heard, anyway. My own move toward less meat eating, if not full-on vegetarianism, has coincided with a boom in plant-centric restaurants, particularly in the Big Apple. Even though some of the city’s trendiest places don’t even serve a veggie option (I’m looking at you, Momofuku Ko), other chefs have made it particularly easy — pleasurable, even — to eat meat-free. The last couple of times I’ve spent a weekend in the city, I’ve made a point of seeking out some of the more creative approaches, especially since I’m working on a vegetable-focused cookbook and can always use some inspiration.
At a place called Dirt Candy, I got it in spades, if you’ll pardon the gardening pun. Soon after a friend and I squeezed into chef Amanda Cohen’s 18-seat place on the Lower East Side for a 10 p.m. reservation, we were grinning. That’s partly because the staff members’ energy was infectious, as they danced around one another in the cramped space, but also because we got such a kick out of merely reading the menu. Carrot buns? Fried cauliflower and waffles? Popcorn pudding? Yes, please. Our favorite: the Asian-style steamed buns made with the juice of three different varieties (and colors) of carrot, with caramelized carrots inside instead of the requisite pork belly.
Turns out that one of those energetic staff members was Cohen herself, and when we asked her how she comes up with her dishes, she smiled mischievously and shrugged. “I just have crazy ideas,” she said. Then she told us about the finishing touches that she and her collaborators were putting on a cookbook due out this fall. It’s illustrated comic book-style, which seems to suit her personality perfectly. After all, this is someone whose Web site proclaims, “Anyone can cook a hamburger, but leave the vegetables to the professionals.”
Just down the street but at the opposite end of the spectrum is Kajitsu, one of the most reflective restaurants I’ve been to outside Japan. The cooks here celebrate the ancient Buddhist tradition of shojin cooking, a precursor to formal kaiseki cuisine. After my friend and I raced there in separate cabs through rainy traffic, frazzled and almost 20 minutes late for our reservation, the smell of cedar incense and the minimal space’s earth-tone decor immediately set us at ease. The word kajitsu means “fine day,” and soon enough, we’d forgotten about the not-so-fine weather outside.
The place has gotten two Michelin stars, and Momofuku’s pork-worshiping chef, David Chang, included it on his list of places to eat in 2012. We happened to go on the first day of a brand-new chef, so we worried that the praise would be misplaced, but it wasn’t. Everything that came our way was exquisite in presentation and often in flavor, too. In true Japanese tradition, as much attention was paid to the dishware as to the food, with stunning pieces of sometimes old (and, in Buddhist style, repaired) pottery chosen to complement the carefully cooked and arranged ingredients.
Take the dish our waitress announced as “spring vegetables”: It was a cherry leaf fried on just one end to look like frost, covering up a nest of Brussels sprouts, asparagus, zucchini and oyster mushrooms. Oh, and what’s that little pinkish white thing? Nama-fu, steamed wheat gluten. Trust me: It’s better than it sounds.
The multi-course menu, punctuated only by our waitress’s lilting voice, included compositions of chewy, crunchy, crisp and sometimes slimy ingredients. The dish that made us swoon was a matte white square bowl filled with a bright green pea broth and a single quarter of a fennel bulb, super soft but with caramelized, slightly chewy edges, along with a few sparsely placed snap peas, sansho pepper flower and little rolls of yuba, the creamy skin that forms when you make fresh tofu.
The next-best dish came at the tail end of the run. The new chef, Ryota Ueshima, fresh from Japan, “has prepared a special course to celebrate his first day,” our waitress announced: apple chunks topped with plum jelly. Tart and sweet, simple but amazing. And yet we couldn’t help imagining a decidedly non-vegan application: It would be perfect on ice cream.
There’s vegetarian, there’s vegan, and then there’s raw vegan. Pure Food and Wine caused a sensation in New York when it opened in 2004 to serve the last, something more common on the West Coast. The tenets of raw food hold that heating anything above 118 degrees destroys important vitamins, minerals and enzymes. I don’t know that I agree with the philosophy — after all, there’s a compelling argument that cooking led to civilization — but none of that really mattered when my friend and I slid into the sleek dark dining room near Union Square. The food would speak for itself.
When it did, it wasn’t as playful as that of Dirt Candy, but it sure had its moments. We had seen lasagna made of zucchini ribbons before, but other dishes surprised us. A crunchy, spicy, fresh Philly roll combined avocado, kimchi and a faux cheese made of cashews. The pistachio topping on a portobello mushroom dish tasted as pungent and funky as if it had blue cheese in it, but it must have been miso or something else fermented. Miniature mushroom tacos were so deconstructed that we couldn’t quite tell what was going on, possibly because we gobbled them up before we had a chance to analyze, or ask.
Near us, a loud table gathered for a birthday celebration seemed segregated by sex, and the female side was in a better mood than the male. As the women took pictures and everybody clinked glasses of sangria, one of the guys shouted out: “Next year we’re going to Atlantic City!” Why? “Because there are no vegan restaurants in Atlantic City.”
I felt a pang of sympathy for two women staffing the host station just a few feet away, but I’m sure they’ve heard it all before. On our way out, I tried to make up for our neighbors by praising the food. “Which was your favorite?” one asked.
“The Philly roll,” I said.
“Oh, I love that one,” she replied, “especially with that cream cheese.” And she winked as if to put quote marks around “cheese,” and I returned the gesture when I said, “Yes, that’s really good cheese.” And there we stood, winking at each other as if vegan food were some kind of code. Which, now that I think of it, might just be true.