A bountiful autumn harvest is easily complemented by a wide range of wines.
Inside the sleek Bacchus in downtown Milwaukee, across the street from the soaring wings of the Santiago Calatrava–designed Milwaukee Art Museum and Lake Michigan’s glittering shoreline, vegetables are never shunned into second place. Given equal props in pairing with the lengthy wine list are hearty entrées like Ramp Gnocci with English Peas, Spring Onions, Sheep’s Milk Ricotta, and Gremolata ($26.95) or Crispy Fried Tofu with Jicama Salad, Salsa Verde, and Queso Fresco ($24.95), either of which stands as strong as the Strauss Veal Chop with Baby Potato Salad and Mustard Vinaigrette ($42.95) on the regular menu.
Whether seated in the main dining room or under the glass-enclosed conservatory, diners can order from the special vegetarian menu that is arranged by courses—small plates, Wisconsin artisan cheeses, salads, and entrées. And then they can choose sweet endings off the dessert menu. This vegetarian-friendly focus is a departure from many fine-dining restaurants that boast an impressive wine list—but offer few choices for diners who don’t eat meat or fish.
“Our chefs go out of the way to [visit] the farmers’ market or call our produce vendors and say, ‘What do you have that’s really good right now?’” explains Katie
Espinosa, the restaurant’s general manager and sommelier, as she talks about building the vegetarian menu on demand. Additionally, the chef’s six-course menu—plus an amuse-bouche and petit fours—costs $75-$85; wine pairings are an additional $35-$45. Substitutions can be made for vegetarian diners attending the restaurant’s wine-dinner series, too.
Nightly, 24 wines are poured by the glass, and a section of the wine list called “Sommelier’s Favorites” spans Napa, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Australia.
The vegetarian-friendly vibe exists year-round, not just in autumn when local farmers’ markets are in full swing, and is a testament to Espinosa’s belief that a menu lacking meat and fish shouldn’t be reduced to a casual setting. Her philosophy is underscored by the expensive bubbles she likes to pair with vegetable dishes.
“I’m a huge Champagne fan. It goes with anything, especially a multi-course meal, starting with something light on through to heavier courses, including rich sauces,” she says.
With roasted root vegetables, she sees a lot of pairing potential. “Root vegetables have a nice earthiness, a nice nuttiness, so I try to pick something that has a little oak to it, like a Chardonnay,” Espinosa says. Among her favorite red wines to pair with vegetables is Pinot Noir, Grenache/Garnacha, and slightly chilled Beaujolais, for its “pomegranate and cherry notes.”
Similarly, Patina in Los Angeles—where there is a thriving meat-free foodie community—also caters to vegetarians with a three- or five-course prix fixe menu. Wine pairings ($30–$65) are prescribed by sommelier Silvestre Fernandes based on what he learns about a diner’s palate. The entire meal is a theatrical event, with dishes like 63°C Duck Egg cooked in Earl Grey tea and Couscous with Eggplant Caviar, perfect for its setting inside the Walt Disney Concert Hall, home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic.