Back in the day, the meat-avoiding traveler had to pack plenty of trail mix, because even an urban vacation could feel like a hike along the Appalachian Trail when mealtime rolled around. Even a city like New York, with its falafel chains and ubiquitous Indian restaurants, raw-food cafes and even vegan diners, could seem like a wasteland if a vegetarian tried to move into a higher-end dining room.
Or so I’ve heard, anyway. My own move toward less meat eating, if not full-on vegetarianism, has coincided with a boom in plant-centric restaurants, particularly in the Big Apple. Even though some of the city’s trendiest places don’t even serve a veggie option (I’m looking at you, Momofuku Ko), other chefs have made it particularly easy — pleasurable, even — to eat meat-free. The last couple of times I’ve spent a weekend in the city, I’ve made a point of seeking out some of the more creative approaches, especially since I’m working on a vegetable-focused cookbook and can always use some inspiration.
Sounds like fun
At a place called Dirt Candy, I got it in spades, if you’ll pardon the gardening pun. Soon after a friend and I squeezed into chef Amanda Cohen’s 18-seat place on the Lower East Side for a 10 p.m. reservation, we were grinning. That’s partly because the staff members’ energy was infectious, as they danced around one another in the cramped space, but also because we got such a kick out of merely reading the menu. Carrot buns? Fried cauliflower and waffles? Popcorn pudding? Yes, please. Our favorite: the Asian-style steamed buns made with the juice of three different varieties (and colors) of carrot, with caramelized carrots inside instead of the requisite pork belly.
Turns out that one of those energetic staff members was Cohen herself, and when we asked her how she comes up with her dishes, she smiled mischievously and shrugged. “I just have crazy ideas,” she said. Then she told us about the finishing touches that she and her collaborators were putting on a cookbook that came out this summer. It’s illustrated comic book-style, which seems to suit her personality perfectly. After all, this is someone whose website proclaims, “Anyone can cook a hamburger, but leave the vegetables to the professionals.”
Just down the street but at the opposite end of the spectrum is Kajitsu, one of the most reflective restaurants I’ve been to outside Japan. The cooks here celebrate the ancient Buddhist tradition of shojin cooking, a precursor to formal kaiseki cuisine. After my friend and I raced there in separate cabs through rainy traffic, frazzled and almost 20 minutes late for our reservation, the smell of cedar incense and the minimal space’s earth-tone decor immediately set us at ease. The word kajitsu means “fine day,” and soon enough, we’d forgotten about the not-so-fine weather outside.
The place has gotten two Michelin stars, and Momofuku’s pork-worshiping chef, David Chang, included it on his list of places to eat in 2012. We happened to go on the first day of a brand-new chef, so we worried that the praise would be misplaced, but it wasn’t. Everything that came our way was exquisite in presentation and often in flavor, too. In true Japanese tradition, as much attention was paid to the dishware as to the food, with stunning pieces of sometimes old (and, in Buddhist style, repaired) pottery chosen to complement the carefully cooked and arranged ingredients.