A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of finally dining at Edmund's Oast. I know, I'm probably the last person in town to try it. While all of the dishes our table tasted were excellent, one was particularly exciting to me on a philosophical level. "Gotta be their heritage chicken and Carolina Gold rice porridge?" you may be saying to yourself. "Or the lamb meatballs? Definitely the lamb meatballs." Nope.
The dish I tried, which incidentally was also the best thing I have tasted all year — and this is counting all of my meals in New York City and elsewhere — was the Oast's heirloom radishes and turnips. Served raw, the root veggies were split into gorgeously seductive cross-sections with their greens still attached and accompanied by an decadently smooth and sweet roasted carrot butter and a tiny finger-bowl of coarse salt. I know, I can hear you already — "Radishes? Raw radishes? Are you kidding me?"
I am not.
A vegetable dish this sophisticated and subtle suddenly called to mind other innovative and artistic vegetable dishes that I have tasted in other cities in recent months. Amanda Cohen's smoked-and-fried cauliflower and waffles at her New York City all-vegetable restaurant Dirt Candy, where the menu boldly announces "anyone can cook a hamburger, leave the vegetables to the professionals." NYC East Village dynamo Narcissa's Carrots Wellington, which swaddles salt-cured, then cocoa-and-coffee-roasted heirloom carrots in a mole sauce and flaky puff pastry (and don't even get me started on their spit-roasted crispy beets in horseradish creme). And a riotously savory wild mushroom and sherry bisque at Geronimo in Santa Fe, N.M., which achieved new heights of tongue-coating richness without resorting to the admittedly effective crutch of animal lipids.
That I could get a vegetable dish equally minimalist, focused, and creative in Charleston made me think. With the growing vegetarian trend and the move of diners to follow author Michael Pollan's advice: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants," the more it seems to me that Charleston's next big food thing has to be an updated approach to high-end vegetarian and vegan fare.
For the discriminating omnivore, Charleston is a paradise of flesh. The chefs and restaurateurs of this city have built a well-deserved reputation on spinning even the humblest animals parts into transcendent mouthfuls of pure, fatty pleasure. But afloat upon this unctuous ocean of shrimp, ham hocks, and marbled beefsteak is an increasingly crowded raft of those who eschew meat and animal products. They are Charleston's vegetarians and vegans, and they are hungry.
What is it like to dine as a vegan in Charleston? There is, of course, no shortage of casual breakfast and lunch locales providing creative options for the meat-free, with Butcher and Bee, Dell'z Uptown, Sprout Café, and numerous others standing out among them. Dinner time is another story. While most fine-dining establishments will make concessions to those who have eliminated animal products from their diets, the options available are often much more limited than for those who delight in more carnivorous exploits.
In many cases, the go-to option for vegetarians and vegans is what I will summarily dub the seasonal vegetable plate (SVP). It is almost always manifested as an assemblage of all of the restaurant's vegetarian sides and garnishes, arranged, like a kaleidoscope on a large circular dish. Sometimes the dish is square — this does not matter. Even the plated concept of the SVP itself is tricky for the subconscious. When poorly executed it can feel like vegetable enthusiasts are made to eat from a grab bag into which can be conveniently dumped anything that passes for "vegetarian" on a given night — some barley risotto here, a few spears of asparagus, and sure, throw in some of that steamed broccoli. While the voluntary accommodation on the part of the restaurant is surely appreciated, it's a little frustrating to those who eschew meat but still appreciate the artistry and sophistication of a composed, balanced, and thoughtful entrée.
However, there are standouts amongst the crowd. And talking to some of Charleston's culinary leaders seemed to be the best way to shed light onto the varied methodologies of the SVP. While a few chefs positively bristled at the mention of this dish, most were not only willing but eager to discuss their approach to cooking for Charleston's cruelty-free denizens.
Indaco's Chef de Cuisine Andy McLeod, for instance, says that offering the seasonal vegetable plate is a decision based on emphasizing locality, seasonality, and freshness. "Sourcing is our primary focus," McLeod says. "Having a seasonal vegetable plate has been our approach to rotating through the best and freshest vegetables as they become available."
Rather than a static entrée that may dip out of seasonality, McLeod explains that this dish allows for flexibility and highlights produce at its qualitative peak. Take for instance the current offering: cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, rapini, and broccoli with a cranberry mostarda and pistachios. It also allows the chef to demonstrate his own artistry. "Indaco pushes to have at least one vegetarian option in each section of our menu," he says — for instance, the restaurant's Brussels sprouts, Honeycrisp, fontina, and Pecorino Romano pizza.
Jeremiah Bacon, executive chef of The Macintosh and Oak Steakhouse, also didn't hesitate to succinctly sum up his perspective: "We love vegetables."
A veteran of Manhattan's Per Se — a restaurant renowned not only for its challenging and elaborate tasting menus but also for its subtle and innovative approaches to vegetable dishes — Bacon is well-equipped to provide enlightened options for vegetarians and vegans. His SVP features a single preparation of peaking veggies as opposed to retrofitted versions of existing menu items plated together. Right now a veg-hungry patron can eat candy cane beets, Lowland Farms carrots, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, radishes, cauliflower, pickled pumpkin, carrot puree, and Anson Mills Carolina Gold rice grits.
At some restaurants, he notes, "the vegetable plate is, you know, five sides of vegetables on a platter." With a laugh, Bacon adds, "We really wanted to get away from that. We definitely have a structured, composed plate."
One of Chef Bacon's advantages in planning each day's iteration of this dish is the relatively late finalization of his menus; they are printed around 4 p.m. daily, giving his kitchen the maximum time possible to evaluate their available produce and decide on the most innovative treatments for them. This last-minute agility has obviously worked.
"We get a lot of great feedback with our plate," he said. "It's something that we really like to have. We sell a lot of them." As for his personal philosophy on providing for herbivores in his restaurants, he keeps it simple: "We're pro-vegetables, we're pro-making people happy," Bacon says. "I don't like to say no, I like to say yes."
At FIG, Executive Chef Jason Stanhope cites his attention to craftsmanship and fine detail as functions of the off-menu SVP's popularity on his tables. His version of this dish involves "vegetables that we've already paid so much attention to during the day and have coddled to where we think they're perfect." Using these thoughtful preparations as the basis for the vegetarian experience at FIG is crucial. "To cook a vegetable to perfection during the hustle and bustle of service," Stanhope explains, "is kind of a pipe dream." Indeed, with a full house and a kitchen running on all cylinders, poaching a carrot into an expression of nirvana is not a realistic option.
The plate itself starts with premium vegetables from Charleston's local farmers, whom Stanhope credits with dedicating their lives to cultivating outstanding and flavorful veggies. Generally FIG's SVP begins with items from the menu's "vegetables to share" section then builds with the freshest produce the kitchen has sourced that day. Last week the vegetables to share included Carolina Gold rice, sauteed Russian Red Kale from Ambrose Farms, puree of Yukon Gold potatoes, and roasted sunchokes.
"By the time we get that vegetable in the door, really, our job is to just not mess it up," Stanhope jokes. By utilizing such stellar raw materials, his chefs simply add "layers of textures and richness" — for instance, the rice is seasoned with preserved lemon while the kale is dressed with chilies — in order to provide the vegetables with "longer, darker, deeper flavors."
As for not featuring a SVP by name on FIG's menu, Stanhope explains, "We actually tried to put the vegetable plate on our menu at one point in time [but] it kind of lost that specialness. It got into the grind, and I didn't feel like it was as special."
Because of that, Chef Stanhope prefers to provide a "tailored experience" upon request. "The one thing we don't do when a vegan walks through the door is automatically put lettuce in front of them," he says. "We actually kind of go in the other direction and provide them with something that's a little more celebratory, something that they can't have every day."
This customized experience also gives his staff a chance to play. "It's a nice burst of creativity in a world where we are technicians. We're so rigid with our craftsmanship and our technique that when we get a chance to step outside of that, it's fun."
The need for more veg choices is growing. "The demand for vegetarian options has definitely gone up," he says. But so are entrees for those with allergies and dietary restrictions. Stanhope says his team has become even more concerned with tailoring the dining experience to each individual guest — a challenge, but a creative one.
This same creative impulse drives John Ondo, the owner and chef of Lana Restaurant and Bar. Lana's own SVP features six different preparations of the freshest seasonal produce available. While this offering started years ago as a simple assortment of marinated, grilled vegetables, it has since evolved into a much more complex and detailed dish. "We have fun with it," he explains. "It's a way for the chefs to get creative and try new things," Lana says. "We are creative individuals, but you only get to be creative so often since it's all about consistency and doing the same stuff over and over."
He also credits his talented and energetic staff with adding fuel to the meat-free fire. "Everybody's got ideas," he adds. As for the logistics of featuring six unique preparations in one dish, Ondo is clear about its difficulty. "It's not the easiest dish to put out, you know," he explains with a chuckle. "At least six different components go into it, and that's three or four different ingredients in each different vegetable preparation, so there's a lot of stuff going on." On Dec. 29 the SVP included roasted potatoes, squash, zucchini, haricot verte, eggplant caponata, and fennel marinated mushrooms. The lunch option is generally served with tabouli or couscous for added fiber and protein.
While Ondo himself playfully admits to eating "like a freaking caveman," he does recognize "a bigger trend of people staying away from meat." "When I started in the industry," he recalls, "a 'vegetable plate' was unheard of. Nobody did it. The chef I worked for just kind of scoffed. But now the plant-based diet is really picking up. It's better for you, and I think people are kind of clueing in to that."
According to a 2008 study by The Vegetarian Times, 7.3 million Americans identify as vegetarians, nearly 3.2 percent of the population. And 0.5 percent of those people are vegans who consume no animal products at all. Indeed, with vegetarians and vegans not only multiplying but also becoming more vociferous in their gastronomic lusts, some Charleston chefs have seen fit to take another approach, which involves replacing the variable SVP with more static and consistent vegetable options. One of these chefs is Craig Deihl of Cypress.
Deihl will be the first to admit that Cypress is a "meat-centric" establishment, as is evidenced by its exquisite steaks and house-cured charcuterie. However, hidden among these fleshy indulgences is an innovative and no less mouth-watering vegetarian option. "We want to make sure that, regardless, we always have something available [for vegetarians]," Deihl explains, "So we always do a vegetable spin on ricotta gnocchi."
Why the departure from the SVP? Deihl says that, until about eight years ago, Cypress offered a "vegetable trio" (three preparations of fresh, seasonal veggies with matching sauces) on their menu. While certainly a serviceable option, the restaurant noticed that vegetarians seemed to feel unsatisfied without a static, consistent dish on the menu to look forward to, and so a more constant option — the ricotta gnocchi — replaced it. While the gnocchi were first created to go with sweet-and-sour meatballs, these delicate pasta morsels are now the de facto vegetarian option. "It was an option that developed seamlessly into another," Deihl says referring to his gnocchi as a "vessel for change," since the round pastas act as a neutral canvas against which the chef can experiment with seasonal ingredients: pumpkin and chestnuts; beets; sweet corn and chanterelles; or, whatever else is in season (currently it's beets, pine nuts, sweet onions, and oranges). Because of their richness, the gnocchi also supplement the lightness of the veggies and leave the diner feeling more satisfied at the end of the meal.
Deihl credits his lengthy experience at Cypress with helping drive his vegetarian option. "The luxury that I have is I have been in this restaurant going on 14 years now, and I have an idea of what people are looking for," he says. Asked about the dish's popularity, Deihl is positive: "We do sell a good bit of them." Giving the diner options for the size of the dish has also been crucial to its success. "We found that by doing two different size plates, that was a huge key — we offer it as a small side or as a large entrée." This allows vegetarians to opt for it as a main, but also lets curious omnivores try it as a side dish, as Deihl wryly notes, "to go with one of their big steaks."
Being made with ricotta, these gnocchi are obviously not an option for vegans, but Deihl is nevertheless committed to providing a more customized dish for those who do not consume any animal products at all. "That's where we try to get out of our comfort zone a little bit," he says. Upon request, Deihl's kitchen assesses what ingredients are available and creates a vegan dish that is free of dairy and meat.
"All of a sudden you've composed a beautiful dish that goes coherently together, without it being just, 'Oh, here's three different vegetables on the plate.' We really try to stay away from that as much as possible," he explains. Deihl says he wants to be sure all diners feel welcome and satisfied, regardless of dietary restrictions or choices. "We don't want it to be an afterthought," he affirms.
One last example of chefs employing this approach to inclusive dining goes back to my raw radish meal at Edmund's Oast.
Asked about his philosophy in catering to the meat-free, Executive Chef Andy Henderson, a FIG alumni, is aware of the value of words. "I don't even like to say 'catering to,' because it makes it sound like it's a nuisance. I don't see it that way at all," he explains. "Not every chef is going to have the desire to fill the needs of people with dietary restrictions, but I do." How is this difference manifested? "It depends on the restaurant," he notes. "At some places I've been to, their plate is just a big hash of some random vegetables thrown in a pan." He cites other restaurants where there are up to nine or 10 different components that go into a vegetable dish, admitting that such preparations are "a little more fun to eat."
Henderson partially attributes his own approach in vegetable cookery to his time at FIG, where he honed the fundamentals and gained an appreciation for working with Charleston's best produce. "What better way to showcase a city or region than by using their vegetables?" he asks. Henderson also shares the same commitment to local farmers that other successful Charleston chefs have demonstrated.
Since Henderson's approach at Edmund's Oast is to feature a maximum variety of veggies at once without repeating any of them across dishes, this translates into an enormous mis en place for his chefs. "Whenever I get a list from a farmer of what they have, it's rare that I don't take everything from them," he says.
This challenging exercise in menu planning is what Henderson says drives his creativity. "It's really easy to make a plate of pork belly taste really good. It's a challenge to make a plate of carrots taste really good and have that be memorable," he says. Vegetarian-friendly dishes like current offerings of butternut squash a la plancha and heirloom pumpkin custard are stark deviations from the majority of Charleston's menus, and Chef Henderson assures that many of his dishes can be easily adjusted to accommodate vegans since the majority of the Oast's raw materials — its stocks, purees, and sauces — start off as vegan, anyway. With some of Henderson's preparations involving a veritable mise en abyme of recipes within recipes, such complex vegetable dishes can easily become the most difficult for a chef to prepare during service, the chef explains, adding that such preparations are also, "a great avenue to show craftsmanship." "When [a vegetable dish] is done right, it can be the best thing on the menu," he says. "It's the place where you can show the most technique and that you know what you're doing when it comes to vegetable cookery."
It must be stated at this point that Charleston's vegans are not relegated to the dining table — the list of prominent herbivores among Charleston's cooks, bakers, and restaurateurs is growing by the day. Nicole Smarel Brown of Dell'z Uptown is a raw food chef, a holistic health coach, and a long-time vegan. Despite the availability of seasonal vegetable plates around town, Brown notes the dearth of more consistent options for vegans in Charleston's fine-dining scene.
"I believe we are missing menus with a variety of options for vegans and vegetarians alike," she notes. "A lot of restaurants are doing your basic veggie plates and/or black bean burgers, but it basically stops there." Brown thinks part of the possible justification for limited vegan menus is "because we don't have enough chefs and cooks passionate about the vegan and vegetarian diets," adding that "it's surprising to see how many vegetable plates are loaded with butter."
Another vegan gastronome in Charleston's culinary community is Ambergre Sloan, the owner and baker of Diggity Doughnuts, a vegan pastry company. Having recently moved from a roving food truck into an established brick-and-mortar location at 616 Meeting St., Sloan shares Brown's concerns about the lack of dedicated vegan menu items in our high-end restaurants.
Sloan thinks thoughtful, vegetarian-specific menu items are missing from menus. "Just one. A great option with wonderful flavors and exotic herbs. A treat even the carnivores would be tempted by," she says. Sloan cites lack of demand and inconsistent support by vegan diners as a reason for the drought. "Every time I go out for a meal and there is a vegan option, I order it instead of ordering a few side items," she says. "It's supply and demand, plain and simple. If restaurants promote a veg-friendly menu, those who care should support it or else it will disappear." Citing Chefs Ondo and Stanhope as some of her favorites in accommodating vegan diets, Sloan is also doing her part to contribute to a greater acceptance of high-quality, high-flavor, and, most of all, omnivore-accessible vegan options in the Holy City.
As a final thought, we should consider the eventual possibility of a dedicated, wholly vegetarian, upscale dining option one day arriving in Charleston. Could it possibly survive? New York City has the acclaimed Dirt Candy and Blossom, San Francisco has its historical Greens Restaurant, and even Asheville has vegan dynamos Plant and The Laughing Seed Cafe, but does Charleston — a gastronomic equal to these cities — have enough curious omnivores to supplement the modest-but-growing minority of herbivores? Only time will tell, but even as we speak the tides are shifting.
Aside from Dell'z and Diggity, more vegan options are establishing themselves. Sprout Café in Mt. Pleasant appears to be doing just fine. The fledgling Motobar has also taken up residence on King Street. With murmurings of a soon-to-open vegan restaurant named Gnome making the rounds as well, it seems that this may be just the right moment for Charleston to prove itself once again — this time not only as a first-class dining destination, but also one that is open, adventurous and, most of all, truly inclusive.