Throughout October, OpenTable is celebrating Vegetarian Awareness Month by spotlighting chefs, restaurateurs, trends and innovations in the world of plant-based dining. Follow along here.
As vegetable-focused dining moves toward the mainstream, restaurants are adopting a more inclusive approach. Concepts that once identified as vegan or vegetarian prefer descriptions like “plant-based,” ditching labels associated with a single type of diner. The idea is that there’s something for everyone on these vibrant and innovative menus.
Nowhere is the shift more apparent than at AL’s Place, Chef Aaron London’s San Francisco restaurant that recently earned the top spot on Bon Appetit‘s 2015 list of the Best New Restaurants in America. At AL’s Place, vegetables are the main event and meats are served as sides.
Before opening his own business, Aaron was the chef at Ubuntu, the acclaimed vegetarian restaurant in Napa. That experience shaped his approach at AL’s Place, where he describes the food as “vegetable-driven, not vegetarian.” At first, Aaron says, some guests and media called the menu “gimmicky,” but the response from diners has been positive on the whole.
“It’s inclusive, it’s approachable, it’s accessible,” he says. “I feel strongly about the menu format and I do hope that it catches on and helps to change eventually the way people serve food and eat food. I don’t think it’s a gimmick.”
Here’s why he decided to let meat take the back stage at AL’s Place.
For a chef, cooking with vegetables can be the ultimate creative challenge. Aaron loves meat, but he says that the technique required is simple: searing-hot pan, brown butter, thyme and garlic. Rinse and repeat – that’s the best anyone can do.
Take a turnip, carrot or radish, on the other hand, and you have an ingredient that changes day to day, season to season. Those little differences require new preparations and techniques to bring out the best in each ingredient.
“One month to the next, the turnip that I order is going to be a completely different beast and is going to inspire me to create a new preparation to serve it,” says Aaron. “That’s one reason that I really like cooking vegetables, is that there’s endless possibility of what you can do with them.”
Aaron believes well-prepared vegetables can be just as satisfying as meat, without weighing you down. He notes that after meals at many fine-dining restaurants, he’s eaten so much meat that he’s actually uncomfortable. (“You schlep your way into a taxicab with your pants unbuttoned and can barely make it home, you know?”)
His goal was to create a restaurant where you actually feel better after dinner than you did before you ate. The sides of meat at AL’s Place are four-and-a-half to six-ounce portions, which he feels is the perfect amount to get the most possible pleasure out of it. With a six-ounce steak, Aaron says, every bite will be like the first bite.
“You’re going to eat your way through those six ounces and they’re all going to be amazing. They’re really going to pop and meet that craving that you had.”
Compare that to restaurants serving a 24-ounce steak, and it begs the question: is every bite really going to be as exciting as the first ones were? Palates, stomachs (and jaws) eventually become fatigued.
When Aaron sat down to think about the architecture of the menu at AL’s Place, he questioned himself: How do I think about meat, how do I think about produce, and how do I think about fish? Here’s how he broke it down.
- Fruits and vegetables: Super complex, great on their own, and ready to be made into free-standing, composed dishes.
- Fish and seafood: Delicious, delicate and light, with oceanic terroir. They play well with vegetables, accompanying them in dishes without covering up their flavor.
- Meat: “Once you put meat on the plate with vegetables, all you’re going to do is taste the meat,” Aaron say. The vegetables become an afterthought.
That’s why he decided to construct a menu with intricate, composed fish and vegetable dishes, and side dishes of meat that are extremely simple – roasted or braised, nothing sous vide or fancy.
Finally, it all comes back to the idea of creating inclusive dining experiences, where food can be shared and celebrated.
Aaron remembers going out to dinner at a restaurant one night shortly before opening AL’s Place. He was craving meat (it was a hard day) but his girlfriend is a pescatarian, and they wanted to split dishes. He eyed the duck, a six-ounce portion with “afterthought” vegetables that he didn’t want, priced around $37.
“It was expensive to the point where like, if I get the duck entree, she’s going to get a fish entree, then we’re not going to share anymore and it’s going to completely change our dining experience,” he says. What he really wanted to do was ask the chef, “Hey man, can I just get a little side of meat?”
That solidified his idea for the menu at AL’s Place, and it’s a shift he hopes will gain more support in the restaurant world. Right now, he says, industry folks are on board, but chefs are hesitant to alienate the vast majority of diners who love a good burger. Plus, preparing standout vegetable dishes is a lot more difficult for chefs than salting and searing a steak, Aaron says.
“To take a handful of turnips and radishes, winter squash — to change that into an awesome, exciting dish that somebody’s really going to crave and come back for, it does take a fair amount more of creativity, skill, technique, discipline. It’s not easy.”
Photo Credit: Molly DeCoudreaux Photography