For ages, vegetables have been restaurants' default accompaniment to a roast chicken or hanger steak. In the past year, however, Washingtonians may have noticed that vegetables -- and more exotic ones at that -- are the main attraction at some of the newest dining rooms across the city.
What's changed in our steakhouse town? Chefs say they enjoy the creative challenge presented by vegetables. They may have a financial incentive for increasing their vegetable offerings, too: According to the most recent Department of Agriculture figures available, beef prices shot up 13 percent between 2013 and 2014. Pork and egg prices rose 9 percent. Then this past fall, the World Health Organization announced that bacon, sausage and even less-processed red meat were pretty conclusively terrible for you. And just this week, federal officials issued new Dietary Guidelines, which encourage Americans to increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables.
Cedric Maupillier, chef and owner of Shaw's new Convivial, has seen increasing interest in vegetables from diners, who he thinks are changing their diets for health, environmental and ethical reasons. So, Maupillier -- an avowed meat lover -- decided his menu would place an emphasis on vegetables. "I'm following what I believe is the right trend. I don't want to be catching up in 10 years," said Maupillier, who devotes a half-dozen of his medium-size plates to produce.
Garrison chef Rob Weland also is making an effort to emphasize the fruits of the Earth, in part because he wants to showcase the turnips, radishes and mushrooms he's sourcing locally. "I'd like them to be more of a feature than a side dish," Weland said. "I don't think of them as side dishes."
Sushiko in Chevy Chase recently unveiled a labor-intensive vegan omakase menu that pushes the expectations for vegetables with such ingredients as black seaweed "caviar" and matsutake mushroom.
These fine dining restaurants, however, may be catching up to vegetable-focused fast-casual spots such as Sweetgreen and Chaia, which for years have served as gateways into a greener diet. Nick Wiseman, co-founder of DGS Delicatessen, the pastrami-curing restaurant in Dupont Circle, is getting in on the action with his new hummus and veggie-focused spinoff, Little Sesame, on the lower level of DGS. "Center-of-the-plate vegetables are definitely a big thing now," he said. Sure enough, winter squash, beets and cauliflower play starring roles in his hummus bowls.
"I definitely think the climate for vegetable dishes is changing and getting more elevated," said Genevieve Villamora, co-owner of Columbia Heights Filipino spot Bad Saint. "I think the standard seems to be evolving. The standard is, 'Is this a good dish? . . . Would this appeal to any person?' "
The vegetable section of the menu, she said, is "not just the penalty box for people who don't eat meat."
The Carrot Scale
Maybe your New Year's resolution is to incorporate something green into your diet. (Once a week. So your doctor stops bothering you.) Or maybe you've been espousing a raw diet since, well, famed semi-vegan Bill Clinton was still the president with the predilection for Mickey D's.
The fact is that some of us are finally ordering Brussels sprouts, while others could eat sorrel and sumac-spiced carrots every day. So how accessible is the meatless fare at this spate of new vegetable-loving restaurants? It all depends on how adventurous you're feeling. Use our scale, ranging from beginner to advanced, to determine which restaurant is right for you.
Genevieve Villamora said the substantial vegetable section on the menu of her shoe-box-size restaurant was partially inspired by a desire to counter conventional wisdom of Filipino food as "meat-heavy, really rich and not good for you." In the process, chef Tom Cunanan may have created one of the area's new "it" dishes: Ginisang ampalaya. It centers on the lives-up-to-its-name bitter melon (technically a fruit), stir-fried with egg and pungent, preserved black beans. Villamora, above, feared the dish would be too esoteric, but D.C. diners are eating it up. Throw in other plates featuring garlicky sauteed mushrooms and a tangle of wok-fired rice noodles, and you'll be in meat-free nirvana.
The bitter melon -- an acquired taste, we venture to say -- pushes this into the top tier for adventurous vegetable eaters. Now, go earn your badge.
3226 11th St. NW. badsaintdc.com.
Sometimes, a vegetable-friendly menu doesn't mean vegetarian: At Amy Brandwein's rustic Italian eatery, anchovies add a briny quality to vegetable dishes, such as a ropy pasta tossed with roasted cauliflower and a carrot plate that mingles fingerlings with the firm bite of kabocha squash, above. A jiggling bundle of burrata is set off, unexpectedly, by a bed of sweet potato, roasted garlic and grilled onions that tie together the sweet and creamy elements. "I love vegetables," Brandwein said, and her ever-changing menu reflects that, even as the greens are used as elements to elevate her meat and fish dishes.
Familiar vegetables are presented in unlikely ways: Carrots come pickled and fried on the same plate; kabocha squash, known to Thai food fans, makes another unusual appearance as filling for ravioli.
974 Palmer Alley NW. 202-898-2426. centrolinadc.com.
José Andrés cheekily named his contribution to the fast-casual market Beefsteak, but so you know: No, you cannot order a nice porterhouse here. The restaurant's namesake is a tomato variety, which should be your clue that the two D.C. locations of this burgeoning chain specialize in vegetables. (You can add chicken, salmon and eggs.) Order a bowl such as the Eden, and watch as a formidable pile of snow peas, green beans, broccoli and asparagus is tossed into a sieve and flash-boiled. The quick cooking leaves them crunchy, and in these bleak winter months, it also makes them a warm alternative to a salad. Even better: This veritable garden is stacked onto quinoa, draped in dressing and scattered with toppings such as corn nuts, adding just the right amount of crunch.
It's not the variety that's the challenge here; it's the sheer quantity. Order a bowl and you'll feel like you've met your nutritional recommendations for a week.
800 22nd St. NW; 202-296-1421. 1528 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-986-7597. beefsteakveggies.com.
The "plant-based" taco stand that sprung up as a farmers market favorite has long shied from describing itself as "vegetarian," although everything here falls firmly into that dietary category. Chaia's tacos -- filled with verdant asparagus in the spring, smoky, chewy cubes of eggplant in the summer and a sweet mash of winter squash in the chilly months - are local and seasonal, changing as frequently as the temperatures outside. The rustic tortilla is patted fresh and griddled to order -- rare for any taqueria, much less a fast-casual one -- but the standout is the vegetables, which are spiced and topped with herbs for maximum flavor, prepared so that no two tacos are ever alike.
Sprinkled sparingly with goat cheese and drizzled with salsas, these tacos, which include one with creamy kale and potato, and another filled with sumac-spiced carrot, aren't merely vegetable-focused. They're vegetable-forward. But if there were any easy vehicle for embracing the veggie trend, it would have to be a tortilla.
3207 Grace St. NW. 202-333-5222. chaiadc.com.
This gluten-free, New York-based chain gets props for letting vegetables be vegetables. "Let's not mask them in other spices or flavors," said managing partner Andy Duddleston. Produce is roasted (great char on those green beans!) and simply dressed with salt and a light hit of flavors that may include lemon-flavored olive oil, red pepper flakes and smoked salt. The fast-casual spot lets diners build their own plates centered on a protein (veggie patty, tofu, chicken, salmon, steak) and sides, or just sides. Most still go the protein route, but if that's not your groove, know you can have a bowl of well-prepared veggies without feeling deprived.
Nothing overly ambitious -- the vegetables are still called sides, after all -- but that's kind of the point. Staples such as sweet potato and broccoli appeal to even beginner palates.
1212 18th St. NW. 202-796-5100. thelittlebeet.com.
Expect artfully plated and composed dishes, in which a vegetable is given the reverence that a chunk of protein might receive in another setting. "I have to look at it as if it was a piece of meat or fish," Cedric Maupillier said. His produce-based fare is built on layers of flavors and textures -- a sizeable wedge of acorn squash atop an olive cake, above, a pudding-like cauliflower blanc-manger showered with herbs, pomelo, almonds and tabbouleh. Maupillier admits that given a choice between a carrot and slice of prosciutto, he'd go for the meat, but you'd never guess given how accommodating his restaurant is to veg-heads.
Cauliflower-flavored pudding? An entire dish built around leeks? We're getting into advanced territory here.
801 O St. NW. 202-525-2870. convivialdc.com.
Rob Weland acquires a lot of his vegetables from a single farmer, Michael Protas of One Acre Farm in Boyds, Md. "I treat them pretty simply," the chef said of the prized produce. That doesn't translate to simple flavors, though. Recently, we enjoyed cider-glazed turnips and rutabagas (are there two other vegetables with such an un-sexy rap?) showered with hazelnuts, above, as well as grilled and pickled mushrooms whose zing is balanced by a bed of creamy grits. Anything garnished with Weland's romesco sauce deserves attention, too: So far we've lapped it up alongside such fleeting dishes as stuffed squash blossoms and an eggplant terrine.
A nice mix of accessible and enterprising. If your veg level hovers around roasted cauliflower, you're set. If you're ready to graduate to braised endive, go for it.
524 Eighth St. SE. 202-506-2445. garrisondc.com.
Regularly on Wednesday nights, the curious gather around Rano Singh, above, in a glossy exhibition kitchen at Dupont Circle's Pansaari. There, Singh, owner of this market-cum-restaurant, explains how caraway can kick up sunchokes and the fire of Kashmiri chili can spice up a curry. The Indian cooking class on Wednesday nights ($55) is part demonstration, part three-course meal, and it might include market-mushroom pulao (rice) and a cabbage stir-fry, all meat-free. Singh takes questions about the tenets of Indian cooking that she's spent a lifetime learning, but she says her love for vegetables has more to do with respect for the land and farming than with any diet. She enlists farms such as Three Part Harmony to grow some of her vegetables.
This is Indian food made familiar with American farmers market finds -- the last ears of sweet corn, the shiitake mushrooms of the fall.
1603 17th St. NW. 202-847-0115. pansaari.com.