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My Friend the Portobello
For one meatless eater, good intentions don’t always mean good food. By Robert Lalasz
Comments () | Published March 1, 2006

“I think they can do something for you!”

These crisp-crusted slabs of tofu at Asia Nora, tucked within layers of vegetables, turn bean curd into something transcendent. Photograph by Allison Dinner

That’s my wife, hand covering the telephone receiver, sounding as if I have a terminal disease and the Mayo Clinic has just agreed to treat it. Actually, the situation is slightly less dramatic: She’s found an open table at Vidalia or TenPenh and the question is . . . will they agree to feed me?

I’m a vegetarian—yes to eggs and dairy but no to anything with a shell or a face. And in the world of high-end Washington dining, that usually means I’m persona non grata. Or rather, I’m persona ungrateful for the scraps thrown my way from restaurant kitchens—the perfunctory pasta primavera, the grilled mushroom the size of a Georgetown manhole cover, the passive-aggressive plate of steamed vegetables reminiscent of what I used to get at family gatherings in my native Milwaukee, where they still serve steak tartare (with raw onions) as a ceremonial wedding dish.

It’s not that I can’t eat out in Washington: Ethnic restaurants, from the high-styling (Zaytinya, Indique) to the hole-in-the-strip-mall (Joe’s Noodle House, Myanmar Restaurant), have always been friendly. And now we have two new restaurants that cater to vegetarians—Vegetate and Viridian—as well as tasting menus at CityZen, Restaurant Eve, and 2941. More on those later. But large swaths of White-Tablecloth Land—the places that wear culinary artistry on their jus-flecked sleeves, that foodies and critics buzz over and where your significant other wants to go for that special dinner—are all but pointless for me to visit. (I almost made a trip to Palena recently for the cauliflower pot-au-feu, but a friend told me they coddle the egg in . . . foie gras? Now that’s animal cruelty.) You’d think that celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain—who wrote in his book Kitchen Confidential that “vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food”—was the overlord of Washington dining.

Well, I didn’t give up my right to dine when I decided to go meatless nearly 20 years ago—just my right to dine here, it seems. I’ve swooned over fresh tofu made tableside at Philadelphia’s Morimoto, lusted after the veggie steak au poivre with five-pepper béarnaise sauce at New York’s Counter, and beamed over farro and Tuscan kale at AOC in Los Angeles. I’ve even chowed down on terrific vegan ratatouille at Barossa in Milwaukee.

Washington’s high-end kitchens, on the other end, always offer me the same four tired entrées:

1. My Friend the Portobello Mushroom. An entrée that’s proliferating like so many spores across town because of its cheapness, simplicity of preparation, and ability to resemble meat, which comforts diners at nearby tables. A steakhouse—Ray’s the Steaks in Arlington—actually became my favorite restaurant for a few months last year because of its grilled portobello with spicy diablo sauce, a fiery alternative to the boring, default balsamic marinade found everywhere else.

2. Ravioli Stuffed With Baby Food. If Walt Disney had been a chef, this would have been his specialty: a G-rated dish of squash, ricotta, or mushroom filling drenched in an indifferent cheese sauce or an innocuous herbed butter, soporific instead of subtle. More than any other dish, this one says to the vegetarian: We know you’re out there, and we just don’t care. At Vidalia, I’ve seen individual raviolis the size of harem cushions, thus giving one the compensatory satisfaction of finishing the dish more quickly.

3. The Vegetarian Plate (or Komposition, as Restaurant Kolumbia calls it). Pile ’em up and knock ’em down—a cord of string beans here, a sawmill’s river of carrots there, a nest of caramelized onions cantilevered over fingerling potatoes beached like sea lions. If you’re lucky, as I often am at Kinkead’s, your lineup will encompass some of the delectable side dishes—corn ragoût, braised escarole, or gigantes beans—that accompany the meat-based entrées. Regardless, you’ll be starving just as the dessert menu arrives.

4. Risotto. Once a standby, meatless risotto—again with baby-food flavorings—seems to have gone the way of Y2K. A perfect dish for me when I want to hew to a low-carb diet, since within the first few bites I lose the urge to finish.

Robert Lalasz is a writer and critic who lives in Arlington, Va. This is his first piece for Washingtonian.

Chefs vs. Vegetarians?

“Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter-faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demiglace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living.”

—Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential

Nothing has inspired more debate among chefs, restaurateurs, and foodies than this passage from the New York chef and TV star. The question is: Does Bourdain speak only for himself? Or is he giving voice to the sentiments of chefs the world over? We asked area chefs: Are you with Bourdain in his distaste for the vegetarian diner? Or against him?

A few candidly agreed . . .

“When some people see a rabbit, they think ‘Oh, it’s so cute.’ I see a rabbit and I want to skin it and braise it with garlic and sherry.

“Some vegetarians eat fish, and I think that’s horrifying. That poor fish was probably just about to go back to its children. Why aren’t they given the same credibility as dolphins and veal? Veal are these anointed souls. As a former vegetarian, I’m disgusted. I call it digestive fascism.... I’m not gonna make every vegetarian eat meat, but leave us alone. I cater to people that eat. I don’t cater to vegetarians.”

—Gillian Clark, Colorado Kitchen

“I wouldn’t say it with the passion and fervor as Bourdain said it, but I agree in principle with what he’s saying. If you’re gonna have good cooking, you’re gonna have to have some of those other things.”

—Frank Ruta, Palena

While others shrug him off . . .

“Oh, come on.”

—Eric Ziebold, CityZen

“I met him years ago and wanted to punch him in the teeth.”

—Cathal Armstrong, Restaurant Eve

“I do not think that vegetarians are the bane of a chef’s existence. I think the only trouble, the annoying thing, is they are so far out of the rest of the culture who eats meat.”

—Sam Adkins, Jackie’s Restaurant

“You know I have a steakhouse, right? I find Mr. Bourdain’s media presence to be a persistent irritant. I work even harder to create a great vegetarian dish than I do on my steaks.”

—Michael Landrum, Ray’s the Steaks

“In my restaurant, which is a small cafe with a traditional setting, I’m working to bring in more nontraditional elements such as the textured vegetable proteins and the new modified foods that are popular in vegetarian communities. But it poses an interesting challenge: How do you stay true to a French bistro or Italian osteria setting with tofu chicken?”

—Barton Seaver, Café Saint-Ex

“With all the markets you have more vegetables than you can make use for. Vegetarian and vegan menus are actually immensely fun to prepare because you can use vegetables that people haven’t had before—bitter melon, long squash. And the first technique you use is usually wrong, and then you have to experiment. . ... If you can’t make a great vegetarian menu, you suck.”

—Jonathan Krinn, 2941


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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 03/01/2006 RSS | Print | Permalink | Articles