For vegetarians and vegans, salad or pasta is often the sole option when dining out—hardly a reflection of a chef’s craftsmanship and more likely an afterthought.
With more and more diners going meatless—thanks, in part, to the Meatless Monday challenge to forgo meat consumption for one night each week—chefs are called to offer hearty comfort foods that stray from the norm. In many cases, the meatless option is a riff on a menu favorite.
At Azu Restaurant in Ojai, California, general manager Elizabeth Haffner devised the nearly impossible: a paella that vegans and vegetarians can eat. (Normally the dish features chorizo, chicken, and shellfish.) “Being in Ojai, we have so many vegetarians and vegans who live here and visit here,” says Haffner. Developed six years ago, the Vegan Paella—with saffron rice, artichokes, and other vegetables—has been on the menu ever since. It bumps up against the Seafood Paella on the menu, with its shrimp, calamari, mussels, sausage, and artichokes. “Being a Spanish-inspired restaurant, we’re not going to take it off the menu—ever.”
The vegan interpretation is in direct response to diners’ desires. “We kept getting, ‘Don’t you have any vegetarian dishes?’” says Haffner. The paella satisfies vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free diets—and those allergic to bell peppers, too. “Unless you’re allergic to onions, it goes across all dietary concerns,” says Haffner. In lieu of a meat stock, she uses a vegetable stock of finely diced carrots, onions, and celery.
Has this dish opened up to a new audience? “It’s not necessarily a different demographic, but it makes it easier for groups and couples to come to us,” says Haffner. In fact, the Vegan Paella has become a favorite for Azu’s holiday parties and other events in its private dining room, which seats up to 75.
Similarly, Damon Kornhauser, director of operations at Rossopomodoro’s New York City location, wanted to break the vegetarian-dining mold. Instead of beef-and-pork meatballs in the Polpette di Melanzane ($10, on the restaurant’s antipasti menu), the balls are born out of eggplant. Introduced last summer, it was actually inspired by corporate chef Antonio Sorrentino’s Neapolitan mother. “His mother would make this because, literally, they did not have enough money for the beef and pork,” explains Kornhauser. Tomato sauce still is central to the dish, which became so popular it remained on the menu past the summer and into fall, when eggplants were still in season.
“It’s been a great thing for crowds and has become a popular item. It’s a small plate—you can pass it around easily—and it’s lighter than the meatball version,” says Kornhauser. Adds Chef Kenneth Welch, “It’s a dish that’s relatively easy to make with few tools.”
The new nod to meatless interpretations of classical dishes extends to bacon, too. At Barton G. LA—the West Coast sibling of Miami’s Barton G. that’s known for its outrageous, theatrical plating—shiitake mushrooms are smoked and dehydrated to make meatless bacon. And it’s not just a side to scrambled eggs. As the Porcini Pizzeola dish, the “bacon” is then served on top of a Porcini-mushroom tarte flambé, with “crème fraiche” concocted out of tofu for the final act.
For meatless diners, options have never been this rich. Vegan and vegetarian continue to rank high as hashtags on social media, and this fact is not lost on chefs. In fact, to further promote the Vegan Paella and appeal to a younger crowd interested in vegan dining, Gaffner posts photos of the meatless interpretation at Azu on Instagram with hashtags that include gluten-free and vegan.