Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Mushroom risotto? What a shocker.

When my husband and I go out for a nice meal, I can never shake my vague sense of guilt. I enjoy checking out the D.C. restaurant scene, partially because I learn a lot about it at my job and partially because, well, duh. But, although Mark loves a good plate of food (almost) as much as I do, he'd often be happier eating at the empty place with no wait list next door to the new place everyone's talking about.

And I think I've figured out why: The vegetarian entrees are uninspired, even from kitchens that otherwise turn out creative, well executed food. While I'm having an epiphany over unctuous duck confit, poor Mark is faced with yet another grim Melange of Seasonal Vegetables, one just like what he could get at the empty place next door. I feel terrible about subjecting him to places where I'll have all these amazing choices and he'll scan the menu, find the one veggie option (if there is one at all), and say, "Well, mushroom risotto it is, I guess." We skipped Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal because I just couldn't subject him to that scenario, even though he always swears up and down that he wouldn't mind (bless him).

In fact, it seems that the better the restaurant, the slimmer the meatless choices. (With exceptions, like certain types of ethnic restaurants and booked-in-advance tasting menus.) In casual-dining places where the philosophy is "give the people what they want," Mark generally gets to at least choose between the mushroom risotto and the Melange of Seasonal Vegetables. (Oh, goody!) But in places where the menu reflects the chef's culinary point of view -- places we'd both be excited to eat at -- that point of view comes across as "vegetarians, go home." Okay, maybe that's a little harsh. But the point is, they're showing you what they make best, what inspires them, what they like, and mostly that doesn't happen to include vegetarian entrees.

Here's the thing, though. Right now, the sustainable seafood movement is translating into a restaurant trend in D.C. -- look at Hook in Georgetown. And most respectable chefs these days make at least some effort to source ingredients as locally and sustainably as possible. So, given that going veggie at least part of the time reduces your carbon footprint, I don't understand why this isn't also manifesting itself in the form of more innovative vegetarian food in restaurants. (And I say this as a most-of-the-time carnivore, lest I sound preachy.)

I understand, I guess, that chefs view meat as the centerpiece of what they do -- that they can demonstrate their technical mastery by cooking it perfectly, and then demonstrate their creativity by having it be a vehicle for innovative flavor profiles. It's what lets them show off their chops (no pun intended). But come on, can someone please, please show me a vegetarian entree I wouldn't think to make at home? Do it for the vegetarian foodies, and for the omnivores who love them.

Is it better in other cities, maybe? Because it's bleak in D.C.

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Anonymous Mr. Tart said...

Boulder actually has several very good vegetarian restaurants. That should be no surprise, but what may be a surprise is that they're not granolaish. More like the mirror image of the normal restaurant in that they offer 2-3 meat dishes to supplement the rest of the menu. And the vegetarian options have trickled into some of the high end restaurants as well. There's usually more than mushroom risotto. ;-)

The trick, I think, is that there are so many vegetarians in Boulder to begin with that the chefs are following the demand. We even have a vegetarian hamburger stand, that I'm sure would be DOA in DC.

6:35 PM  
Blogger lis said...

I was thinking about this issue the other night when we went to try a restaurant that had been well-reviewed by everyone. The restaurant is small and funky and I really, really wanted to like it. But I didn't. I wondered, though, if my not liking it was because we all had pasta (feeling poor). They had some delicious-sounding meat entrees, but I just didn't feel like forking over $30 on a Thursday night. I made my pasta choice because of money, but it started me thinking about vegetarians who would have only been able to choose the pasta on that menu. I think that a good chef should make everything good, not just a few signature dishes.

9:36 AM  
Blogger Sarah said...

Thing is (in response to my hubby), even the restaurants in Boulder we think of as "vegetarian," like Sunflower, serve meat. They just also do good things with meat substitutes. Oh, and the vegetarian burger joint he mentioned? It's actually vegan!

The other problem with the "gourmet" restaurants that only give vegetarians one or two choices is that, in my experience, they're rarely protein-heavy: they have good veggies, yes, but veggies plus starch, because ingredients like tofu and eggs and beans don't come across as high class or high interest.

Even as a "flexitarian" who eats seafood and poultry here and there, I get frustrated with restaurant choices, so I can certainly feel Mark's pain. At least he's not a vegan!

6:04 AM  
Anonymous VegeYum @ A Life (Time) of Cooking said...

It is not much different here. I have been subject to the worst of dishes at a range of places, just so that I can have a meal with friends. the attitude of "oh we have a salad" when I ask about vegetarian options has gone, but it is now restricted to pasta, rice or noodle dishes.

When I am choosing the restaurant we do Indian or Asian, but even Asian is not guaranteed to have vege options. We don't have many Middle Eastern options here, otherwise they would also be good.

Once upon a time, there was a great restaurant here, Cafe 54, who had a menu that changed weekly, only ever had a choice of 3 starters and 3 main courses, and at least 1 of each, every week, was an innovative vegetarian dish. Loved that place.

BTW, cultural differences are interesting. Here an "entree" here is the first part of a meal, the smaller dish before the main part of the meal. The main part is called "the main course".

10:26 AM  

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