I’d like to change the pace with a negative restaurant review, plus a Philippic aimed at complacent, traditional chefs in general.
In my experience, being a vegetarian at a restaurant is generally an exercise in diminished expectations. There are a few out there that focus on us as a demographic, and they tend to do reasonably well. Most, however, seem to view us as an afterthought; second class citizens of the culinary republic. I actually went to one chef-owned restaurant where the only thing on the menu I could eat was “frites” (expensive French fries). Even the salads had meat in them.
I recently visited Kismet, an upscale restaurant in Montpelier Vermont. I later remembered that after the last time I had been there, a couple of years before, I had vowed to avoid the place. They just don’t seem to give a damn about vegetarians.
On my previous visit I had ordered a veggie burger. Kind of anomalous for an upscale joint, but then the fancy places have been elevating the burger to pretentious heights lately. What showed up was essentially inedible. First, it was a double stacked arrangement with three bun pieces, two burgers, and other ingredients. It was a normal burger diameter but it stood about five inches tall. It was suitable for a crocodile or a python with a dislocatable jaw, but not for a normal human mouth. Maybe the chef was being artistic in some Dadaist way, but it needed disassembly before consumption, and that’s not what a burger is about. Then there were the burgers, or to be more accurate, non-burgers. They were half inch thick pieces of plain fried tempeh. Boring, unappetizing, and demonstrating no interest in, or mastery of cooking. I mean really, I was paying something like $17 for this, and they couldn’t mix up some kind of flavor-enhanced veggie burger? I gently noted to the server that tempeh wasn’t a burger, and that a burger should fit in the mouth of the species homo sapiens.
On my more recent visit to Kismet I ordered some kind of veggie and grain plate. Again with the plain fried slabs o’ tempeh. Add a dollop of plain rice, some unflavored steamed vegetables, a few canned condiments, and you have what I might prepare at home if I was pressed for time and filled with self-loathing. They managed to make fiddleheads unappetizing. It was a complete culinary face-plant. I felt a strange mixture of annoyance and actual embarrassment for the chef.
My dinner companion at Kismet had baked oysters and a ribeye steak and pronounced himself eminently satisfied. My appetizer was polenta fries, which were very good – crispy and chewy and slightly spicy. The chef was not incompetent, which made the abysmal main course that much more irritating.
Note to chefs: tempeh, and its blander cousin tofu, are not complete food items unto themselves. They are vehicles for flavoring and protein rich filler to be mixed with more interesting things. Pitching an unadorned slab of fermented soybeans at one of your customers is a gesture of contempt. No, I don’t have any recipe suggestions. You are, theoretically, professionals, and should know the full spectrum of your craft.
Yes, I know, *real* gourmets are eager to eat goat anus tartare on a bed of pickled larks eyeballs. Vegetarianism is for Buddhist ascetics and animal rights freaks who disapprove of plungering food down the throats of waterfowl. Throw a bowl of rice at them and move on to your real customers, the carnivores.
May I suggest that you are being lazy? Cooking with meat is like making jewelry with gold – the intrinsic characteristics of the material get you halfway home. Start with a good piece of steak, or swordfish, or some prime oysters, and even simple preparation will satisfy the customer. The grains and produce that make up the bulk of a vegetarian diet lack the intensity and complexity of flavor that let you coast to victory with a little lemon butter. You need imagination and you need to work at it to surpass our quotidian home cooking. There, the oven mitt is thrown down.
Note to restaurant owners: I have noticed that when groups of people are deciding on a restaurant, there is generally a democratic vote, but with a veto option. If one person “hates that place,” then it gets dropped from the running. Quite often there is a vegetarian in the group, our veto power giving us more clout than our numbers would have you suppose. When one of our carnivorous friends suggests that we all dine at “L’Abbattoir Sanguinaire” we are going to suggest the place down the street. A friend of mine recently suggested either Kismet or a more vegetarian-friendly place nearby for lunch, and my response was predictable. Unless you run that place down the street, it’s past time for you to up your game.