Veg Out!

Produce is nudging protein to the side of the plate in many area restaurants

Only a few years ago, a six-course restaurant menu that focused on tomatoes—or any vegetable or fruit—might not prompt patrons to pay $120 each for the meal. But last month, just such a menu filled nearly every seat at The House of William & Merry in Hockessin for a Share Our Strength benefit.

Courses featured locally grown cherry tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes and beets. Plates were dressed with tomato powder, tomato gel, sun-dried tomato crumble and cherry wood-smoked tomato gravy.

Cocktails included pickled green tomatoes, muddled tomato jam and a skewer of cubed feta and an heirloom tomato. While there was protein on the plates—tuna crudo, lobster, fluke and lamb—tomatoes were clearly the star.

The menu is on the cutting edge. Locally grown produce ranks No. 2 on the list of the 2014 top 20 trends published by The National Restaurant Association. Today, consumers are eager to eat their vegetables—even if as children they pinched their nose while downing Brussels sprouts.

Freshness is a factor. “The farm-to-table movement is not a fad,” says Dan Butler, owner of Piccolina Toscana, Deep Blue Bar and Grill, and Brandywine Prime Seafood & Chops. “It’s a reality that locally grown products taste better and are often less expensive, and in our world, that’s best demonstrated by vegetables.”

At this time of year, the trend is particularly strong, as attendees at The Farmer & The Chef event, a March of Dimes fundraiser in Wilmington on Sept. 18, will witness firsthand.
Diners are often motivated by low-carb diets or health concerns. But adding veggies has also become a lifestyle choice. More people are following a plant-based diet – at least part of the time. Credit Mark Bittman’s book VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health…For Good.

Restaurant owners have taken note. At BellaVista Trattoria & Pizzeria in Pike Creek, all entrees are served with the choice of homemade soup or side salad and customers can get sautéed vegetables instead of pasta. Broccoli rabe, spinach and broccoli are available as sides. “Our vegetable lasagna is also super popular,” says owner Candace Roseo.

At Durney’s Deli in Wilmington’s Little Italy, owner Nancy Durney says customers often come in just for her vegetable-based sandwiches, which include the Roma panini with tomatoes, sautéed spinach, fresh mozzarella and pesto mayonnaise; and a veggie hoagie with roasted eggplant, long hot pepper, roasted red peppers, sautéed spinach and sharp provolone. “They’re not even vegetarian,” she says of many customers who choose these sandwiches over those with traditional Italian meats or turkey.

While meeting customer demand is putting vegetables in the spotlight, there are other reasons why restaurants are turning to sprouts, kale and spinach.

Jason Barrowcliff, chef at Brandywine Prime who participated in the tomato dinner, is an ardent gardener. He grows so much at home that he has plenty to use in the restaurant’s kitchen. (Barrowcliff once had 25 pounds of tomatoes from his garden.) This year, his harvest has been so plentiful that he has provided produce to other chefs, including Tim Smith, owner-chef of Twelves in West Grove.

For the Brandywine Prime, Barrowcliff has created dishes with his homegrown corn, heirloom tomatoes, and cucumbers. When some customers asked if there were any fresh jalapeños for their nachos, Barrowcliff presented them with four hot pepper varieties from his garden. “They were amazed,” he says. (Look for menu items with ingredients from the “Chef’s Garden.”)

This year, Barrowcliff gave each server a tomato plant to take home and grow. “I want them to see that if they taste their own tomato and then have one from a grocery store that there is no comparison,” he explains. “That’s true even with broccoli. I grew some this year and I will never eat it from a grocery store again.”

Matthew Curtis, owner of Union City Grille in Little Italy, has a plot in the Cool Springs reservoir garden project, and he purchases produce from a Bright Spot Ventures program, which teaches gardening to youths transitioning out of foster care. He also uses items, such as herbs, that are grown in his home garden.

Chefs without access to a home garden can take advantage of area produce stands. Bryan Sikora of La Fia in Wilmington and Robert Lhulier of University & Whist Club frequently post photos of their ripe finds at SIW Vegetables in Chadds Ford.

“In summer, it’s all about the veg, yes,” says Lhulier, whose August dinner saluting the late Chef Charlie Trotter featured a protein (tilefish) in just one course. The menu included watermelon-tomato gazpacho with a tomato sorbet; a composed late-summer salad with heirloom tomatoes, beets, zucchini and blueberries; and Bing cherry cake.

But the love affair doesn’t end come autumn. Butler is excited about whipping up purees with root vegetables, including rutabaga and celery root. “As much as I love summer, I love cooking in fall,” he says.

While access to local produce can inspire creative dishes, there are other reasons why chefs are putting more vegetables on the plate. The wide assortment lets culinary wizards add texture and color to a dish, says David Leo Banks, executive chef of the Harry’s Hospitality Group.

New veggies and preparations can also offer a bit of excitement. “You get bored with string beans and asparagus,” Banks says. “There’s fun in eggplants and squash.”
He enjoys going to the Newark Farmers Market and spotting Asian and Latino fruits and vegetables—some of which he’s never seen before. A few items—think kohlrabi—may lack much flavor on their own, but they serve as a crunchy or colorful conduit for other ingredients, such as soy or spicy peppers.

Adding a generous amount of vegetables to a dish also enhances the sense of value; the customer feels he or she is getting more for the dollar. At Harry’s Savoy Grill, vegetables are part of what’s known as a “set,” or a composed plate. Even the steaks get a vegetable.
Many dishes at Toscana also include a vegetable—unless it’s a pasta dish, which usually has vegetables in the sauce or the pasta. “The eggplant ravioli is a vegetarian dish, but people don’t say they are eating it for that reason,” Butler says. “They say: ‘I love the eggplant ravioli.’”

Vegetable-based dishes are also becoming popular as starters or small plates. Moro in Wilmington offers a vegetable plate designed for sharing. Capers & Lemons features broccoli rabe and beans with chili flake and extra virgin olive oil as a starter. At Union City Grille, roasted cauliflower—rubbed with olive oil, salt and pepper and sliced thin—“flies out of here,” Curtis says.

Even the traditional salad is getting some oomph. Harry’s Savoy has a shaved Brussels sprouts salad with toasted Marcona almonds, egg and pecorino cheese. Beet salad has made it through four menu changes at Toscana.

Just because diners are eating more vegetables in a restaurant does not always mean the dishes are good for them. Brussels sprouts—little trendy bundles of goodness—are often tossed with bacon or pancetta. They’re even fried. “We’re in the business of making food that people like, not that will keep them healthy; we’re not a health food restaurant,” Butler notes.

The popularity of sprouts and kale shows no sign of waning. In fact, this fall you might spot kalettes—a marriage of the two—in grocery stores.

What’s next? Some say okra, which would please Banks. “It’s one of the most beautiful vegetables in the world,” he says.

Butler isn’t convinced. “If okra is ‘in,’” he says, “I’m out.”