There was once a time in the not so distant past when a meal out had to include steak, fish or spaghetti carbonara. Even ordering chicken at a restaurant was considered silly, with that little voice in your head saying, "I can make this at home." Even "healthy" eaters wouldn't consider a dish a meal unless it included animal protein or pasta swimming in cream sauce.
But times are changing. Chickens are haute (chickens for two even more so) and vegetables have moved from obligatory side dish to main event.
Welcome to the era of the vegetable tasting menu. While Per Se has been doing one for years, at $310 per person it's an experience out of the realm of possibility for most. But now there are a number of more affordable but equally adventurous restaurants that are going all veg everything.
Chef Alfred Portale of Gotham Bar and Grill in Union Square has always placed an emphasis on vegetables at his restaurant. In fact, he was one of the first chefs to pioneer the farm-to-table movement by championing the farmers at the Union Square Greenmarket and serving their produce on his menus.
Portale has served his Greenmarket to Gotham vegetarian prix fixe lunch menu for years, but recently, after many requests, decided the time had come to offer something similar at dinner.
"It's the way I like to eat and how people nowadays like to eat," he said.
Like Portale, chefs across the city are also noticing the shift in diner preference. New vegetarian tasting menus are also available at ACME in the Village, Take Root in Carroll Gardens and Juni in Flatiron.
Take Root's vegetable tasting menu was first offered at the tiny 12-seat eatery just a few weeks ago. It was so popular that owners Elise Kornack and Anna Hieronimus planned another set of dinners to be offered next weekend, August 21 -23. They are also sold out.
Based on how popular the dinners are, Take Root is considering doing vegetable tastings monthly or bi-monthly with the eventual goal to be a vegetable tasting alongside the standard tasting menu that is normally offered.
Vegetables are both healthy and trendy, but why are chefs so excited to cook with them? According to Portale, there are two reasons: produce is varied and delicious and modern techniques - like sous vide (French cooking technique where food is sealed in airtight plastic bags and cooked in a water bath) and compression - are more widely available to chefs.
"The quality of the ingredients is much greater now, and that's more than half the battle," he said. "Looking at the market, there's a huge amount of products to work with, endless combinations."
"When I look at proteins...It's a short list," Portale added. "It's not like they're inventing new meats everyday."
WHERE TO TRY A VEGETARIAN TASTING MENU
Gotham Bar and Grill, 12 E. 12th St., gothambarandgrill.com (dinner, $80)
Sample menu items (changes depending on market availability): Greenmarket ceviche; arugula with watermelon radish; sweet pea ravioli with sugar snaps, carrot puree and roasted cipollini onion
Take Root, 187 Sackett St., Carroll Gardens, take-root.com (dinner, $85)
Sample menu items from July tasting: Potato with sour cream and onion; carrot with black garlic and leek ash
Juni, 12 E. 31st St., juninyc.com (lunch, $50)
Sample menu items: Arugula soup with lovage oil; gnocchi with freeze-dried goat cheese; strawberries and sumac
ACME, 9 Great Jones St., acmenyc.com (dinner, $65)
Sample menu items (changes monthly): Roasted padron peppers with roses and yogurt; johnny cakes with long island cactus and mushrooms; turnips with smoked cheese