Vegetables Are the New Meat!

Top New York chefs agree.

“People are more aware of what’s going on with the local veggie scene,” said Bill Telepan, owner of the Upper West Side restaurant Telepan. “It’s become more popular to buy from the greenmarket than it ever has been, and because the greenmarkets seem to be getting bigger and better, now chefs are able to have veggies play a more prominent role.”

Indeed, there’s plenty of room for them on Mr. Telepan’s menu, which includes fried artichokes, autumn vegetable bread soup, roasted cauliflower, chickpea pancakes, beet green and ricotta pierogis, and buttercup squash gnocchi.  

“This consciousness about, ‘Who’s growing what? Where’s it coming from? What variety is it?’ These are questions people weren’t asking 10 years ago,” said Dan Barber, executive chef and co-owner of Blue Hill, whose Web site lures diners with images not of sizzling meat, but colorful vegetables sprouting from soil and vine. Blue Hill’s fall menus include entrees and/or tastings of cauliflower steak, brussel sprouts and pistachios, Bloomsdale spinach, celery root, Orion fennel and Forono beets, to name a few.

Mr. Barber, whose “almond carrots,” foodies will recall, were all the rage last year, said that because the farm-to-table movement has made people “more interested about what’s going on their plate,” chefs have become more confident about veggies being the star.

“It’s brought about the rise of the vegetable as a power broker on the plate,” he said.

 

BEET ME, DARLING

Of course there’s a more obvious reason to opt for veggies when dining out: In an economy where even well off New Yorkers are cutting back on their morning trips to Starbucks, it never hurts to save a few bucks.

“Restaurants are looking for a way to put less expensive items on their menus,” said Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio, founder and co-owner of Craft, which, he noted, offers an array of vegetable-based courses priced below their meaty counterparts. “You can come in and just order vegetables and make a meal out of it. We will see more of that.”

At Gramercy Tavern, the popular contemporary American restaurant Mr. Colicchio co-founded in 1994 but is no longer affiliated with, the vegetable tasting menu, which currently includes heirloom cauliflower, Jerusalem artichoke soup, fennel and lemon risotto and a butternut squash and kale-based ravioli, will run you $92, as opposed to the meat-heavy autumn tasting menu ($112).

“It’s very satisfying to see a rising number of sales of the vegetable tasting,” said Michael Anthony, Gramercy’s executive chef.

There is a happy medium between these high-end places and, say, DoJo, the longtime Village refuge of cheap carrot salads. The menu at the downtown comfort food joint Westville East recently enticed Alexis Saarela, a 29-year-old publicity manager from Queens, when she met a friend there for a post-work dinner. For $13 she got cauliflower, pesto mashed potatoes, broccoli rabe and artichokes (there are about 20 veggies total; diners may choose four).

“It was really tasty and they were vegetables I wouldn’t normally think to buy or cook with,” said Ms. Saarela, who has no problem eating meat. “It’s nice to have an option where you feel like you’re getting fresh seasonal ingredients.”

New York carnivores squeamish about handling a bloody slab in their own kitchens, meanwhile, can now comfortably explore the cooking craze using vegetables alone, with no stigma. No longer is the bachelor cook expected to inflame his lady with a sizzling steak Diane.

Back at the Union Square Greenmarket, the entirely macho Michael Coury, 40, who works as a “concept chef” for OTG Management, was rifling through a crate of black Tuscan kale to accompany the chestnut flour pasta, Jerusalem artichokes and beets he planned to cook that evening for a romantic dinner back home in Jersey City with his fiancée.

“I think we’ve started to come back to more of a European palate in the way that we go out to the market to find what’s best for right now. For tonight,” he said. 

Those without the patience for such foraging can join community-supported agriculture groups, or CSAs: networks of individuals who buy shares in a farm in return for a weekly delivery—usually to a central neighborhood location—of fresh vegetables and fruit (and yes, in some cases meat). You never know what you’re gonna get.

Williamsburg resident Angela Gaimari, 26, joined a CSA last June. Previously she’d been eating a bagel for breakfast, a cheeseburger or sushi for lunch and maybe pizza for dinner.

“It was like, ‘Wow, I haven’t eaten vegetables in a really long time!’” she said. “I just started craving leafy greens.”

Ms. Gaimari, a copywriter for a high-end New York department store, said her most recent shipment (also the last of the season) included dinosaur kale, mustard greens, brazing greens, white radishes, various roots, garlic, sweet potatoes and fingerling potatoes. The cost for 11 such shipments with some fruit and flowers thrown in for good measure: $500.

“Cooking and having people over is a lot more fun to me than going out to some bar in Williamsburg,” said Ms. Gaimari. “I take a lot of pride in picking out vegetables.”

jpompeo@observer.com