This is a version of an article also published by the Financial Times.
New York’s culinary reputation has been built on protein: steaks, chops, burgers, fried chicken (now on offer with champagne at the appropriately named Birds & Bubbles on the Lower East Side) and pastrami. Invariably, these have been served in what to Europeans at least have appeared to be immense portions with the provision of a doggie bag as the vital, final conscience-salving ingredient.
No longer. Although all of these remain on offer, I discern a major shift in the way the city’s menus are being written with long-overdue importance now being given to vegetables. The reasons for this are varied and numerous, ranging from the rising cost of the protein to the realisation by many that their daily intake needs to be more balanced. The growing number of talented, female chefs is probably another factor.
That was certainly the view of Rick Bishop from the aptly named Mountain Sweet Berry Farm in Roscoe, upstate New York, whom I caught up with late one afternoon as he was loading up his van at the Greenmarket in Union Square. Coming towards the end of his 30th harvest, Bishop has noticed two major changes in the demand for his good-looking, tasty produce.
The first is the change displayed by his customers in the care and attention they now pay to what they put into their bodies. The second lies in the approach of the city’s chefs, predominantly young and American today but who were set on this path by the older generation of French chefs, for whom buying at the market is a fact of professional life. He praised the enthusiasm in particular of the young chefs at Semilla in Brooklyn who raid the market early in the mornings seeking produce and inspiration for what they describe as their vegetable-forward menu. Coincidentally, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, one of the French pioneers of this approach, will open ABC V, for vegetables, close to his successful ABC Kitchen, in early 2016.
As a further example of how language can still divide a common people, one of the most interesting aspects of this change is how chefs are using different phrases to describe their menus. They range from vegetable-forward to vegetable-focused to vegetarian but the theme is constant: less protein, more vegetables and, consequently, more colour on the plate.
We encountered all this in three very different incarnations, although two of them shared the increasingly common phenomenon of New York restaurant life, waiting in a queue.
The first was waiting for the doors to open for weekend brunch outside Dirt Candy, Amanda Cohen’s vegetarian restaurant on the Lower East Side. Cohen is a hard-line vegetarian chef who dreamt up the name to convey the sweetness that can come from what is grown in the soil and whose website proclaims: anyone can cook a hamburger, leave the vegetables to the professionals.
The interior’s open design lets the aromas from the kitchen waft across the restaurant and allowed us to watch the chefs prepare simple but very satisfying brunch dishes. Best of all was a thin, layered omelette stuffed with finely diced coriander, spinach, radishes and goats cheese alongside a side order of crumbly tomato biscuits with basil butter and jam.
Sweetgreen is a rapidly growing group created by Nicolas Jammet and two colleagues in 2007 in Washington DC that has expanded swiftly since then across the US. The queue at the Broadway branch was even longer than at Dirt Candy, but Amy Winehouse sang loudly in the background so there were no complaints.
Nor could there be about the quantity, choice, range and price/quality ratio of the enormous salads that are made to order by a line of at least 15 smiling people behind the counter. And what makes Sweetgreen particularly attractive is its obvious lack of earnestness. There is a sense of fun about the place, the staff and the graphics. A blackboard read ‘Lavatories 10 ft to the left, Greenmarket 10 blocks to the right’.
Perhaps the most significant common feature of the queues at both Dirt Candy and Sweetgreen is that they were overwhelmingly made up of women under 30, the tastemakers of the future for the hospitality industry.
Finally, to mid-town, with a reservation, to the remodelled Dovetail, where on Monday evenings chef John Fraser writes two special four-course menus that appear on one side of the normal à la carte, the first vegetarian, the second ‘vegetable focused’.
From a first class wine list, we drank a Schäfer-Fröhlich Riesling Spätlese and a Dirty & Rowdy blend of 2014 Mourvèdres from all over California while we switched between the two menus. The textures, flavours and colours of what ensued revealed why this style of cooking can be so rewarding in the right hands: a plate of figs with bulgur wheat, stracciatella and pistachios; charred cucumbers with sea trout; cured carrots with duck breast, lentils and sunflower seeds; and an artichoke and spinach crostata with a pecorino fondue. Disappointment, however, lay in the very obvious lack of urgency of the waiting staff as our four- course meal took three hours.
Finally, vegetables to go New York style. I flew back with a just-published copy of V is for Vegetables by Michael Anthony, the chef who put seasonal vegetables at the heart of the Gramercy Tavern menu.
Dirt Candy 86 Allen St, New York, NY 10002; tel +1 212 228 7732
Dovetail 103 West 77th Street, New York, NY 10024; tel +1 212 362 3330