Dining: The Rise of Vegetables


Mothers used to say “Eat your vegetables” in a way that sounded like a thinly veiled threat. The implication was that nobody would actually choose to eat vegetables. They may have been good for you, but they certainly weren’t good.

Well, goodbye to all that. Last year on “60 Minutes,” the renowned Spanish chef José Andrés pronounced vegetables “unbelievably sexy,” and New York Magazine declared that vegetables are the new meat. No longer bit players, they’ve assumed a starring role on the plate.

Don’t despair, Sacramento carnivores: Meat isn’t going away. But these days, plant-based dishes are taking up more real estate on restaurant menus and getting more loving treatment from the region’s best chefs.

And according to Kurt Spataro, executive chef for Paragary Restaurant Group and co-owner of downtown’s Spataro restaurant, it’s about damn time. “Vegetables have pretty much always been my starting point” when creating a dish, says Spataro, who’s nevertheless pleased to see vegetables finally getting their due.

Here in Sacramento, vegetarian and veg-friendly restaurants are popping up like mushrooms in the forest after a spring rain. Recent newcomers include Sugar Plum Vegan Cafe on K Street, The Green Boheme raw-foods restaurant on Del Paso Boulevard, and veg-focused fast-food chains Loving Hut and Freshii.

Diners, too, are paying more attention to the green (and yellow and orange and purple) stuff on their plates. In January, close to 1,500 people flocked to VegFest, a one-day food fair on Del Paso Boulevard. Caught unaware, vendors expecting only 200 people ran out of food. That intense interest comes as no surprise to Spataro. “Customers are more open to vegetables,” he says. “Like beets—it used to be you couldn’t give ’em away. Now, people can’t get enough of them.”

But you don’t have to go to VegFest or a vegetarian restaurant to find vegetables worth putting in your mouth. Chioggia beets, dinosaur kale and salsify all appeared on local restaurant menus this past winter, and Mulvaney’s Building & Loan makes fabulous use of dry-farmed potatoes from Petaluma in soup, gnocchi, twice-baked potatoes and salad. The potatoes, which cost $2 a pound (compared to 18 cents for a pound of russets), have an intense, earthy flavor. “It’s like, wow, this is what a potato is really supposed to taste like,” marvels chef Patrick Mulvaney.

Even wild produce is showing up on local plates. At downtown’s Ella, executive chef Kelly McCown recently staged an event called Dinner at the Wild Table, featuring ingredients he’d personally foraged for: stinging nettles, black trumpet and hedgehog mushrooms, wild herbs, field mustard and wild radishes. The meal’s proteins—venison and pork belly—couldn’t outshine the imaginative side dishes: butter-poached black-trumpet mushroom gratin, and strudel made with yellow foot mushrooms and stinging nettles. Even dessert—bread pudding with candy cap mushrooms and maple anglaise—had a vegetable component.

IT’S NOT JUST the vegetables that are more interesting. It’s also the ways in which they’re prepared. Sacramento’s best chefs have abandoned the old style of lightly steaming or sautéing vegetables (boring!) in favor of more interesting, complex preparations. Take Randall Selland’s tomato carpaccio at The Kitchen, for instance, or Michael Tuohy’s meaty ragout of chanterelle mushrooms at Grange.

At his L Street restaurant, Spataro spends hours preparing braised Romano beans. He starts by making soffrito, a mixture of diced celery, onions and carrots that takes a couple of hours to prepare, then slowly simmers the beans and vegetables with San Marzno tomatoes, rosemary, garlic and extra-virgin olive oil until they’re perfectly tender. “That’s a lot of effort for a bean,” Spataro says. “But it’s worth it.”

For the region’s most creative chefs, vegetables are proving to be an interesting canvas for their talents. At Mulvaney’s, the spring arrival of aspar-agus inspires an orgy of preparations. One night, asparagus might be served on top of Dungeness crab or house-cured ham. The next night, it could appear in a dish called Asparagus Three Ways: grilled asparagus spears, deep-fried asparagus and an asparagus-flavored hollandaise. Or Mulvaney might pair asparagus with a soft-cooked egg in its shell, served jewel-box style with the top of the shell removed so the diner can dip the spears into the warm, gooey egg. 
At local restaurants, it’s not unusual to find vegetables seasoned with bread crumbs or even flavored with a bit of meat. (When Alice Waters—the Queen of Vegetables herself—came to town earlier this year, Spataro served her braised escarole blanketed with crisp bread crumbs.) Mulvaney uses house-cured bacon to give vegetables a little extra oomph—because, as he says, “everything’s better with bacon.” Here, meat’s the condiment, not the main attraction. According to John Paul Khoury, a chef who works for one of the region’s leading meat suppliers, vegetables need that added flavor. “Celery has nine flavor compounds. Meat has 400,” Khoury explains. “To make vegetables more interesting, you have to develop the flavor profile with some fat or protein, or by caramelizing the sugars.”

FOR ALL THE LOCAL interest in vegetable-forward fare, Sacramento still doesn’t have an upscale veg-centric restaurant—a place like Ubuntu in Napa, Gather in Berkeley or Millennium in San Francisco. What’s up with that?
“It’s the palate here,” posits Ella’s McCown. “Sacramento is very, very, very meat-and-potatoes.” The chef, who worked at top restaurants in Napa before moving to Sacramento in 2009, points out that Ella’s menu offers more meat than any other place he’s ever worked at. Still, customers complain that Ella’s Flintstonian slab of prime rib (22 ounces!) is too small. “How much beef do you want?” he asks rhetorically.

McCown thinks we Sacramentans are a little spoiled, with our long growing season and easy access to great farmers markets. It’s a case of familiarity breeding contempt. Spectacular vegetables are so easy to come by, why would you order an heirloom tomato salad at Ella? 

That customer resistance doesn’t stop Ella’s owner, Randall Selland, from heading to the farmers market under the freeway every Sunday morning and loading up his van with fresh produce for his three restaurants. He believes that if he starts with superior products—naturally ripened avocados from Shoup Farm, fat, gorgeous heads of cauliflower from Suyenaga Farms, crisp cucumbers from Madison Growers—he’ll make believers out of even Sacramento’s most dedicated carnists. 
Broccoli, anyone?

VEGETABLE HEAVEN: 10 great plant-based dishes
By Kira O’Donnell

Vegetable Pot Pie—You don’t have to be a vegetarian to savor this beautiful dish, a far cry from the gunky, baked-from-frozen pot pie of your youth. At THE WATERBOY, chef Rick Mahan has deconstructed this 1950s staple and elevated it to haute cuisine. Chunky carrots, broccoli, creamy bites of kabocha squash and spinach, and new potatoes are bathed in a sumptuous white-wine sauce and topped with a jaunty puff pastry cap.
2000 Capitol Ave., Sacramento; (916) 498-9891; waterboyrestaurant.com

Sunchoke Agnolotti With Baby Root Vegetables—Eric Alexander, the dynamic young chef at CARPE VINO, has a stellar reputation for innovative, seasonal-and-local cuisine. His creativity sparkles in delicate handmade agnolotti stuffed with a purée of creamy sunchokes (aka Jerusalem artichokes). The pasta is gently tossed with baby root vegetables, including carrots, turnips and rutabagas, and doll-size pioppino mushrooms, and the eye-popping ensemble is glazed in black truffle butter and adorned with a frothy Parmesan emulsion. The pièce de résistance? A sprinkling of crispy, crackly sunchoke chips.
1568 Lincoln Way, Auburn; (530) 823-0320; carpevinoauburn.com

Mushroom Burger—This delicious burger at PAUL MARTIN’S AMERICAN BISTRO is hefty enough to satisfy even the most committed carnivore. The patty, crafted from portobello, cremini and porcini mushrooms, has an earthy, robust flavor. It’s served on a springy bun, topped with a generous tuft of arugula that contributes an assertive, peppery punch, and smeared with fresh pesto aïoli whose bright, herbaceous flavor is a nice foil for the richness of the patty. This mushroom burger is substantial enough to pair with your favorite Cabernet.
1455 Eureka Road, Roseville; 916-783-3600; paulmartinsamericanbistro.com

Macaroni and Cheese With Brussels Sprouts—
The humble, oft-maligned Brussels sprout is enjoying a marvelous revival. This wrinkly, cruciferous vegetable makes a thrilling appearance in MAGPIE CAFE’s mac ’n’ cheese, laden with Jack and Shaft blue cheeses and dotted with bits of smoked bacon. Chef Kelly Hogge roasts and caramelizes the sprouts before plunking them in the pasta, then tops the dish with toasty-brown herbed bread crumbs. It’s comfort food at its best.
1409 R St., Sacramento; (916) 452-7594; magpiecaterers.com

Aden Roll—A sushi roll doesn’t have to be crammed full of raw fish to taste great. Chef Billy Ngo of KRU makes a scrumptious version filled with warm tempura vegetables, covered with a nest of microgreens and avocado and drizzled with a sweet chili glaze. The tempura vegetables change seasonally but include haricots verts, bell peppers, kabocha squash and carrots. The Aden roll (named after a longtime vegetarian Kru customer) is lovely to look at and offers fresh, clean, lively flavors. 
2516 J St., Sacramento; (916) 551-1559; krurestaurant.com

Pickled Beets—While many chefs roast beets in the oven to concentrate their flavor, GRANGE RESTAURANT & BAR’s Michael Tuohy gently boils them in preparation for his special marinade, which includes sugar, cider vinegar, cinnamon stick, coriander, juniper and star anise. These delicately textured root vegetables have an exotic sweet-tart flavor, and their dazzling colors range from rich gold and bright magenta to deep ruby red. Tuohy presents them in different guises throughout the year: One deliciously simple version pairs beets with soft, tangy lumps of goat cheese.
926 J St., Sacramento; (916) 492-4450; grangesacramento.com

Crispy Onion Rings—It’s hard to resist a pile of warm, fragrant onion rings, but SUTTER STREET STEAKHOUSE makes them even more irresistible by serving them with a bold blue-cheese dipping sauce and a spicy-sweet chipotle sauce. The yellow onions are sliced paper-thin, then quick-fried, arriving piping hot on a crisp white napkin. This is a terrific appetizer to nibble with cocktails. But if you’re not careful, you’ll have no room left for dinner.
604 Sutter St., Folsom; (916) 351-9100; sutterstreetsteakhouse.com

Eggplant Pockets—At SUEDE BLUE, executive chef Brian Hawkins combines eggplant with an intriguing list of ingredients, including lemon grass, yellow curry paste and spicy sambal sauce, then stuffs the mixture into siu mai (dumpling) wrappers. The half-moon-shaped eggplant pockets are fried to a yummy crustiness, then served with a fabulous honey-chipotle dunking sauce enlivened with cilantro, diced red onion and garlic.
1400 Eureka Road, Roseville; (916) 782-5525; suede-blue.com

Sweet Potato and Smoked Bacon Hash—
Many people’s only experience with sweet potatoes is at Thanksgiving, when they’re covered with gooey marshmallow. Chef Robert Lind of TAYLOR’S KITCHEN gives these deep-orange tubers a decidedly sophisticated spin, marrying diced, roasted sweet potatoes with roasted Brussels sprouts, celery root and green garlic, then adding salty chunks of applewood-smoked bacon to create a colorful hash that’s served with a maple-brined Berkshire pork chop and rosemary brown-butter applesauce.
2924 Freeport Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 443-5154; taylorsmarket.com

Purple “Burrito”—A Mexican food fanatic, I ordered THE GREEN BOHEME’s raw vegan “burrito” (the quotation marks are meaningful, as you’ll see) with a touch of trepidation. However, the dish’s interesting flavors won me over. Nestled in a large cabbage leaf, the burrito features “beans” (pulverized sunflower seeds), “nacho cheese” (ground pumpkin seeds) and “rice” (chopped jicama). Tomato and avocado chunks add color, and the dish is topped with silky “sour cream” made from coconut and cashew nuts. 1825 Del Paso Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 920-4278; thegreenboheme.com                                       s