The plight of vegetarians and people who live with them is a personal issue for me – I happen to fall into one of these two categories. So, yes. I care. Even if it’s for purely selfish reasons.
I have been looking forward to visiting America’s in the Woodlands for weeks now. While I have no desire to go to America’s next to my office, there are plenty of reasons to drive an hour just to have dinner in the Woodlands. First, combining a talented chef like Jonathan Jones with the South American leaning (and slightly tired) theme of America’s has potential to produce some really interesting results. Looking over the menu I am still worried that the relentless drive to preserve the America’s brand might get in the way of great food, but I have hope.
More important, Plinio Sandalio takes deserts to the new level and the only way to sample his creations is to trek all the way up to America’s in the Woodlands. The three desserts I sampled while he was at Soma were outstanding, rivaled only by Elisabeth Faulkner in originality and flavor. Desserts are often overlooked at restaurants, so you rarely see something that breaks convention. Nana in Dallas does a good job of this. Alinea in Chicago pushes the envelope more, though not always with great results. So America’s really did sound seem worth the drive.
Despite only being open a few weeks the restaurant is regularly booked out for dinner, so my first few attempts failed. I finally got a reservation this weekend and convinced 5 friends to go with me, but things came to a grinding halt when I looked at the menu. Not only are there no vegetarian options on the menu, but when I called the grilled vegetable plate described to me on the phone seemed like one of those things vegetarians loathe to eat. So now I am going to Gravitas instead.
Last time I bitched and moaned about this, Chris Shepherd from Catalan took time to comment. Here’s what he said:
We don’t have a lot of vegetarian options on our menu, but not many restaurants do. We will actually go out of our way to make sure that each individual will get everything they need, just ask. We are one of the largest supporters of our local farmers and are at the markets 2-3 times a week. We always have amazing locally grown vegetables in house. We don’t want to give you a steamed veggie plate like most will. We like to do different things for vegetarians, don’t feel that your options are limited. Just ask to talk to me, I will work an entire menu around you.
I believe Chris when he says that he will go out of his way to accommodate his diners. And he is absolutely right, the steamed veggie plate is a bad cliche that allows places with crap food to be in business simply because they don’t treat vegetarians like lepers. But in my experience, showing up on a random night and directing the chef to whip something great with no notice is not the best way to guarantee a great meal.
More often the not, you do get the grilled or steamed veggie plate. Sometimes an undressed pasta (I am not making this up) with a couple of hunks of steamed broccoli. At Restaurant August, the kitchen sent out what looked like a collection of sides off every dish on the menu, which seemed like some macabre combo plate you’d get at a really upscale homeless shelter.
Perhaps more important, no diner wants to design a dish when they go out for dinner. When you go to a place like Catalan, America’s or Reef, you go there because you want to experience something created by the chef, rather than a random veggie surprise of the night you have to design yourself.
Working without a protein that used to walk or swim is an under appreciated art and something mostly uncommon in restaurants until very recently. It is happening in very few places, but vegetables are taking center stage in dishes. My experience at Manresa was exceptional all around, but it was the vegetable dishes that really blew me away. At French Laundry I was presented with a printed vegetable tasting menu that made me seriously consider ordering it over the main tasting. In hindsight, I should have made the leap. At least one highly ambitious restaurant in Bay Area is focusing exclusively on vegetables (notice I didn’t say vegetarians) and receiving critical acclaim.
If Ferran Adria can deliver an absurdly complex multi-course vegetarian tasting at a place like El Bulli (yes, I have looked into it and it’s a standard option), why can’t we have just a couple of non-meat dishes at a restaurant in Houston?
Update: Plinio just wrote to tell me that they were making a special vegetarian entree for us tonight. Now I feel like a total pain in the ass. Sorry guys. I really appreciate it.
May 24, 2008 7 Comments