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The Rise of Vegetable Cuisine in Philadelphia

From high-end dining rooms to gastropubs, veggies are in the spotlight
November 18, 2014
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by Danya Henninger

All hail the vegetable.

These days, Philly is as much a foie gras city as it is a roast pork town, but there’s a new favorite stealing the spotlight in cuisines both high and low.

The undeniable rising focus on vegetables as culinary stars is a boon for chefs and diners alike. More varied in color, texture and flavor than meat could ever hope to be, produce is opening doors for new achievements in the kitchen. At the table, it’s leading to meals that are healthier without any sacrifice of satisfaction.

Not that everyone is turning vegan, nor should they be. But when Vedge is the most highly rated restaurant in a city overflowing with great options, it’s a strong indicator of a transformation.

The November 2011 debut of Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby’s Locust Street dining room marked an inflection point in the ascent of vegetables in Philadelphia.

As far back as 2008, Leigh Maida and Brendan Hartranft made sure the menu at craft beer haven Memphis Taproom catered to non-meat-eaters as much as to anyone else, picking up on the “vegan pub fare” concept already put to the test at bars like Royal Tavern, Cantina Los Caballitos and Monk’s Cafe. On the haute side of things, Landau protégé Ross Olchvary introduced vegan cuisine to the suburbs with 2010’s Sprig & Vine

It was in 2011, when when Blue Hill at Stone Barns alum Josh Lawler opened The Farm and Fisherman, that Center City got one of its first major lessons in the allure of produce. “Bloody beet steak” was touted as a signature dish, and both diners and critics were impressed.

Then came Vedge, with soulful dishes you’d never guess were entirely animal-free, and the drumbeat of charismatic vegetable cooking intensified.

At the 2012 launch of Vernick Food & Drink, Greg Vernick had an entire “vegetables” section on his small plates menu. His restaurant is now the second-most highly-rated establishment in town. That same year, Mitch Prensky introduced an “unhealthy veggies” category at his South Street New American Supper, and Rachel Klein launched weekly vegan farmhouse feasts at Miss Rachel’s Pantry on East Passyunk Avenue.

Also in 2012 came the introduction of Kung Fu Hoagies, the city’s first all-vegan food truck, and of HipCityVeg, where Nicole Marquis proved vegan fast food was not an oxymoron.

Marquis took another two years to open her sleek, meat-free Midtown Village cocktail lounge Charlie was a sinner, during which time chefs all over the city took the opportunity to highlight vegetables on their own. A prime example is the “Our Terroir” tasting menu Eli Kulp debuted at Fork, featuring a dish called Kennett Square à la Pascal Barbot — recreating the famous French galette with local button mushrooms and cashew cheese instead of champignons and foie gras.

Eating meat in Philadelphia is getting better, too — look to Kensington Quarters, with an in-house sustainable butcher shop, or Lo Spiedo, where Marc Vetri is spit-roasting creatures from land and sea to great effect — but veggies continue to shine.

As of this autumn, Landau and Jacoby are making the case for vegetables as a medium for global street food via the craveable snacks served at V Street. And when George Sabatino’s new cerebral-chef dining room Aldine is up and running smoothly, he’ll introduce two tasting menus: one omnivore, and one vegetable-only.

In every direction you look, the news is good: vegetables are here to stay.

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