Many restaurants throughout the region are seeing a growing demand to make their menus a bit more veggie-centric — not only from their vegetarian or vegan guests, but from meat-eating people looking for a change. It's not enough to offer vegetable side items or one obligatory entrée option. Places like Urbana, Pizzeria Orso and Zengo are not vegetarian restaurants by any stretch of the imagination, but their chefs have recently upped the presence of vegetable dishes. The practice keeps vegetarians happy, healthy diners coming back and chefs from becoming bored with the typical meat and potato fare.
Urbana, located in the heart of D.C.'s Dupont Circle neighborhood, has always had a Mediterranean flair. New chef Ethan McKee has taken that idea and put more of a healthy spin on the menu, and part of those changes come from the addition of new vegetable-based items.
To make sure diners respond well, "It's really important to use healthy fats and high quality oils, vinegars and herbs for seasoning," says McKee. "It's also especially important to cook with the seasons for vegetarian dishes because you're locking in produce at its peak freshness and flavor. Finally, when you add in legumes and grains like quinoa or farro, you can create a very interesting, satisfying dish." McKee's butternut squash soup gets spiked with parsley, chives, tarragon and chervil. It's usually finished with a little cream and pancetta, but that can easily be omitted without losing the essence of the flavoring. Chef McKee continues to see a growing demand for vegetarian options. "It has affected how we develop dishes. In addition to offering lots of vegetarian options, we prepare meat dishes very simply so that we're able to make easy accommodations for vegetarians and vegans."
Pizzeria Orso is far from a vegetarian hangout, but Chef Will Artley prides himself on offering unique options for the guests looking to him for veggie-centric menu options. A seasoned chef familiar with the unique needs of a neighborhood restaurant, Chef Artley continues to ramp up Orso's menu with a variety of small plates split into categories such as vegetables, meat and seafood.
Simple dishes such as his Brussels Chips continue to be a huge hit for guests. "Vegetables are the true seasonal ingredients, not always meat. You can get most meat year-round, but some people forget that some chefs' greatest loves and favorite items are actually vegan [or] vegetarian," he said. "Yup, I'm talking about you white truffle, ramps, etc. Cooking vegetarian isn't boring; it's a true test of creativity. Be playful, have confidence, and people will be open to trying things they might not have tried otherwise."
Artley had a personal stake in the changes. He's been on a quest this year to eat healthier, lose weight and get in shape — he participated in a sprint triathalon recently and lost 70 pounds during the Fit for Hope challenge. "I think I would be lying if I said it didn't have an impact," he said. "But I think it made me more aware for a need for a more balanced menu at Orso." He had received feedback from critics that the dishes at Orso were very rich and healthy, but he figured when people go out to eat, they want to indulge. "That's not the case for everyone — there should be at least a few things on the menu so people can shake it up."
The changes have been well-received at Orso, he said. He recently had a vegan customer who was thrilled with three dishes Artley created for her on the fly. And the restaurant's seasonal pumpkin salad is probably the healthiest on the menu right now — and it's the restaurant's best seller.
Zengo, by Chef Richard Sandoval, is another restaurant in DC that has continued to create new vegetable-centric options for guests. Regional Executive Chef Graham Bartlett enjoys the opportunity to prove that vegetables are not boring. He says, "Our flavors are so explosive that they lend themselves to something other than the usual token vegetarian items." The restaurant has several tofu options on the menu, along with a lot of pickled vegetables and chilies. Sushi also provides the opportunity for some meatless options. "On the more Latin side we do several items with cornmeal and masa, such as sopes and arepas, which are great components for our meatless, yet tasty dishes."
—Damon M. Banks
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