Planta founder and CEO Steven Salm never wanted to be a preacher about the way he eats. “People get really offended when you try to shove your values at them.”
Instead, the force behind the chic plant-based restaurant that finally makes its mid-Atlantic debut in Bethesda tomorrow wants to share the plant-based lifestyle in a way that feels good—and even indulgent.
Planta will open with lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch at Bethesda Row (4910 Elm Street) starting February 12. Though the vegan cafe oozes chill Miami vibes, Salm founded the first Planta with executive chef David Lee in Toronto. There are now nine locations spread across Florida, Toronto, and New York.
Salm was 31 when he embraced a fully plant-based diet. At the time, he was the only one in his restaurant group and his social circle who believed that plant-based eating was the way of the future. Salm was feeling better than he had in a long time, but it was obvious to him that there was a societal hurdle that had to be conquered. Plant-based food can make people feel really good, but the fully plant-based restaurant experience didn’t always feel very good.
“We realized that there was a huge opportunity to make plant-based eating socially acceptable,” Salm says.
Like any good storyteller, Salm knew that the way to convince someone of anything was by showing rather than telling.
“Forget the values; forget the preaching. I’m just going to make a plant-based restaurant that people want to be seen at and people want to eat at. They’ll be enjoying themselves, and then they’ll think it’s their idea.”
Lee spends much of his time on what Salm calls “menu innovation” with the intention of never using a manufactured or processed product to resemble an animal protein. Coconut ceviche, kelp Caesar salad, steamed dumplings, truffle udon noodles, burgers, pizzas, and an array of sushi and sashimi all star on the menu under his direction.
For the Bethesda outpost, Lee developed a plant-based version of Maryland’s iconic crab dip made with fresh hearts of palm flown in from Hawaii three times a week.
“So much of what you love about a crab dip is the creaminess and texture, but you aren’t tasting so much as you are enjoying texture,” Salm says. To that end, Planta mounds hearts of palm with richness achieved with a creamy cashew mozzarella and remoulade brightened with Old Bay. It comes with a side of taro chips.
Salm’s favorite Planta dish is the spicy lumaconi, a shell pasta blanketed with a rich rosé vodka sauce. “When you are appreciating how rich and satisfying this dish can be on a cold winter day, and you know there is no cheese or butter or anything like that, it’s obviously for me that much more enjoyable.” That indulgence without a side of guilt carries through all aspects of the restaurant.
For the sushi and sashimi, dehydrated watermelon stands in for spicy tuna, stunning with a deep pinkish red hue that looks like ahi tuna. Planta uses 99% of the watermelon: The only part that isn’t used is the skin, but the rind itself is pickled. “It’s an incredible, versatile ingredient that resembles texturally and flavor profile-wise a really high quality tuna. Umami and sweetness and texture are all there. All the enjoyment without the side effects that come along with taking fish out of the ocean or consuming mercury,” Salm says.
Brunch dishes brioche-style French toast soaked in an oat milk mixture before hitting the griddle. Meanwhile, a diner geared on a healthy brunch can enjoy a green juice and a chia bowl.
With bright, fun tipples that manage to both enliven and refresh, cocktails are a big part of the Planta experience. Salm calls it “the household hedonism aspect of what we do.” Each drink has a component of fresh, cold-pressed juice. For example, the “Herb Your Enthusiasm” mixes lime and Thai chile-infused tequila with cilantro herb syrup, pineapple (leftover from pineapple pizza and coconut ceviche), and orange liqueur. If there’s still any doubt that a feel-good, plant-based cafe can embrace booze, stop by for “Pour Decision Wednesdays,” when all bottles of wine are half price.
Designed by Alden Fenwick, Planta Bethesda’s 140-seat dining room is all good taste and high gloss with soft, warm tones like taupe, brown, and rose pink. Lush greens are grounded with wood tones and lifted by antique brass accents. “I think we still have to feel as good on a snowy day in January as we do on a summer day in July,” Salm says.
Planta has plenty of plans on the horizon. A West End location has already been secured for the company’s foray into the D.C. market, and Salm hopes to have a Planta in every U.S. city by 2025.
Planta is located at Bethesda Row in Montgomery County, at the intersection of Bethesda Avenue and Arlington Road in Bethesda. Open hours are daily for lunch and dinner from 11:45 a.m. to 10 p.m. (until 11 p.m. on weekends). Brunch lands every Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.