A Month of Vegetarian Cuisine

Vegivore Month: Three high-end restaurants take vegetarian cuisine from earthy to ethereal.


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Most of the diners at Le Bistro enjoy the carnivorous offerings, but vegivores eat well too.

Three out of four Americans still don’t eat even three servings of vegetables a day.

This month I decided to make up for them.

I had a reason. Veggies, I suspect, are about to have their moment in the culinary spotlight.

New York Magazine recently insisted, “Vegetables are the new meat.” Michael Pollan wrote a No. 1 bestseller (In Defense of Food) built around the mantra: “Eat food. Not too much. Mainly plants.”

Recently, I had dinner with Hawaii food maven Joan Namkoong, who insisted she had become a COW, that is, a Carnivore On Weekends. That seemed fitting for the woman who set off the Farmers’ Market movement in Hawaii and got people in Honolulu to stand in line for things like organic kale.

OK, so I’d eat vegetables this month, undistracted by animal protein. I intended to be a vegivore, not a vegetarian. But to get the food I wanted, I was going to have to ask for vegetarian offerings.

Two problems. First, like 97 percent of the population, I am not a vegetarian. I am leery of even using the term, since it’s so contentious.

Vegetarians are split into sectarian camps. All across the Web, you can find pure vegetarians offended by those who eat fish occasionally.

Or vegans, who eat no animal byproducts, looking down their noses at vegetarians. (Imagine eating eggs!) Or, and this is my favorite dispute, vegans feuding with yet other vegans who—gasp!—eat honey.

Problem No. 2: Where would I eat? I couldn’t face a month of small, often amateurish vegetarian restaurants serving bland and sometimes ill-textured food, whose best quality was its moral status as vegetarian.

Then I read something that made the lights go on.

 

Per Se is the seriously high-end New York restaurant from the French Laundry’s Thomas Keller. Per Se now charges as much ($295!) for its 11-course vegetarian menu as it does for its regular menu of caviar, Perigord foie gras, butter-poached Nova Scotia lobster and 100-day-dry-aged American Wagyu beef. (Veggies must be on their way to stardom.)

Alas, I couldn’t fly to Per Se this month, but I could get to two or three top Honolulu restaurants and ask the chef, whether it was on the menu or not, to whip me up a vegetarian dinner.

I was willing to eat my veggies, I just wanted to eat well.

Le Bistro

Niu Valley Shopping Center, 5730 Kalanianaole Highway, (808) 373-7990, Dinner nightly except Tuesdays, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., Ample free parking, major credit cards.
 

The “vegetable plate” at Le Bistro looks like a Mondrian painting, if Mondrian painted with vegetables.

I took my family with me to Le Bistro, because they would never speak to me again if I didn’t.

While wife and daughter were exclaiming over the carnivorous splendors of chef Alan Takasaki’s menu, I didn’t even look at it. Takasaki will, if asked nicely, make what the waiter will call a “vegetable plate.”

Doesn’t sound like much. Until you see it.

It’s a work of art. On a white platter come three long, narrow, white trays. Each tray has five compartments. In each compartment, a different vegetable, prepared a different way.

Imagine a Mondrian painting, if Mondrian had been turned loose in a high-end produce market and could cook as well as Takasaki.

The treat isn’t just visual. You get 15 different things for dinner. You take a bite or two, marvel at Takasaki’s skill. Then the next thing on the platter sends you off in a new direction, keeping your palate buzzing.

I just started at the top-left corner and ate my way across the rows, like I was reading a page.

The first row began with something that didn’t look great, didn’t sound good and was extraordinary: cabbage fondue, savoy seared on the grill, tenderized in water, with daikon slow-cooked in butter.

The row proceeded through summer squashes, green and yellow, and grilled broccolini with tarragon and rosemary. Then it came to rest at something that looked like a little hamburger. Instead, the filling was Hamakua and morel mushrooms in a brandy-Madeira butter. This was fun to eat and better than a hamburger.

On to the second row, once again five items. Tatsoi seared over high heat so the bitterness disappeared, served with translucent slices of deep-fried potato.

 

A glimpse of Hoku’s through the bar.

Little rounds of baby zucchini. A cipollini onion caramelized with sugar and hit with Banyuls vinegar. A sparkling little portion of orzo (a pasta that looks like rice) in parsley and Korean watercress butter.

The second row also had something that didn’t look like much—soft, red and chunky. But it lit up your mouth: charcoaled tomatoes, diced and sautéed with capers and olives.

The third row got even better. It began with roasted Kahuku corn with bell pepper and green onion, proceeded through Waialua asparagus and a diced squash of some sort. Then it ended with two things so brilliant they stick in my memory.

The first was a deep, black trumpet mushroom atop cauliflower in brown butter. The other was cocktail-size tomatoes, roasted in olive oil, bursting with wonderful, rich, sweet, tomatoey goodness.

The calorie and fat burden of my meal was obviously less than that of the vast Snake River pork chop my wife consumed, or even the sizeable wild-salmon fillet on my daughter’s plate. Still, the satisfaction index on this meal was like eating your way through a vast, chewy chunk of protein. (I did, by the way, succumb to a few of the escargot my daughter ordered to start. “Snails are nearly vegetables,” she assured me.)

I was full, but not heavy. I often skip dessert after a conventional meal. Not this time, because who would want to skip Takasaki’s simple and perfect tart tatin: a layer of fresh apple slices on a thin layer of pastry, sprinkled with sugar that caramelizes as it bakes. It’s topped with a hillock of sweet whipped cream, which, in this case, I didn’t even feel guilty about consuming.

The Le Bistro vegetable platter is $28.80, a bargain for a dish so labor-intensive. “I have to lock the back door,” says Takasaki. “Otherwise the cooks would run away when the order comes in.” Accordingly, a 24-hour notice is required.

Hoku’s

The Kahala Hotel & Resort, 5000 Kahala Ave., 739-8780, Dinner nightly Monday through Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., Validated valet parking, major credit cards.

I ran into Wayne Hirabayashi, the Kahala’s executive chef, at the second annual Hawaii Rice Fest.

 

You won’t miss meat with Hoku’s truffle-topped risotto. And all of Hoku’s desserts are, of course, vegetarian.

“What do you do when someone walks into Hoku’s and wants a vegetarian meal?” I asked.

“Take care of ’em,” he said.

I made a reservation, once again with my carnivorous family. While wife and child disported themselves through the menu (sushi, ahi musubi, short ribs), I sent word to Hirabayashi, let’s go with the vegetables.

He was slammed, with a party somewhere else in the hotel, but, in his spare time, he whipped up seven courses.

The vegetarian tasting menu started off conventionally enough, with Hoku’s usual soup and salad. Hirabayashi had dressed up the Waimānalo greens with hearts of palm, striking red and white slices of watermelon radish. And, as if he knew how to push healthy eaters’ buttons, he’d made the dressing with the I’ve-heard-it’s-good-for-you ingredient of the moment—acai berry. The crunch in the salad? Granola.

The soup was Hoku’s tomato, hard to improve on. No cream, just Kula tomatoes slow cooked in stock, herbs and garlic, then warmed in vegetable stock with a few ingredients the kitchen refuses to reveal.

Hirabayashi augmented the soup with a knot of burrata, fresh mozzarella that’s made even softer by wrapping it around cream. The name comes from the Italian burro, or butter, and burrata is virtually butter, just better tasting.

The next two courses demonstrate clearly that veggies can be stars. The first was a double: Kahuku corn and asparagus cooked in a ragu, and Chinese long beans topped with Romesco, an ancient Catalan sauce that’s essentially roasted peppers, olive oil and garlic, thickened with ground Marcona almonds. The Catalans serve it with a variety of green onion called calçot. Long beans work fine, their sturdy texture contrasting with the robustness of the sauce.

When you’ve got stars, let them shine. The next course was Big Island tomatoes three ways: a large slice of a red heirloom tomato dressed in olive oil and black lava salt; a thicker slice of yellow tomato, drizzled with pesto and balsamic vinegar; and baby tomatoes marinated in a vinaigrette. Sometimes cooking is just getting out of the way.

Hirabayashi, perhaps worried I wasn’t getting enough to eat (I was), sent out something serious. It wasn’t a big mound of risotto, a good thing, because it was lavish. Not only was it richly cheesy and filled with Hamakua mushrooms, it was also dotted with shaved truffle. This was so extravagant I almost felt guilty. Not so guilty I didn’t eat all of it.

 

Vikram Garg on the Halekulani’s veranda.

Hirabayashi picked up a knack for cooking curry at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. Thus, his penultimate course was mild coconut milk curry with fingerling potatoes, baby carrots, eggplant, cipollini onions.

It wasn’t part of my dinner, but there was something else I could eat. My wife and daughter had ordered a side of mashed potatoes whipped with goat cheese.

I wouldn’t have thought the combination would work, but it works both ways. The smooth potatoes soothe the bite of the goat cheese, muting its salt and fatty acids. The goat cheese, in turn, relieves the potatoes of their bland homogeneity.

Try the potatoes, whether you are vegetarian or not. They won’t work if you’re vegan and eat no animal byproducts at all, but such is the price of virtue.

Hirabayashi dropped by the table on his way back to his other kitchen. “I’ve got to get back,” he said. “All the desserts are vegetarian anyway.”

I ended dinner with a red-currant tart, an adult play between the sour edge of the fruit and the sweetness of the meringue topping.

A tasting menu like this is $80, though if you bring your carnivorous family along, expect the check to be higher.

 

La Mer

Halekulani, 2199 Kalia Road, (808) 923-2311, Dinner nightly 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., Validated valet parking, major credit cards.

A vegan friend, Sylvia Thompson, tipped me off that La Mer “always has a vegetarian degustation.” Really?

I called the Halekulani’s executive chef, Vikram Garg, to check. Unbeknownst to me, the hotel had been after him to revise La Mer’s vegetarian menu. It had been in place for five years and everyone was tired of it. Garg decided to seize the opportunity and come up with seven new courses.

“You two can be my guinea pigs,” he said when I arrived with a friend. “This menu didn’t exist at 11 this morning.”

Six courses, and, this being La Mer, the option of six wines chosen by sommelier Kevin Toyama. For a menu whipped up in an afternoon from the hotel’s larder and the local produce section of Whole Foods, it was a near brilliant performance, back dropped by the sun setting over the ocean through La Mer’s windows.

Course No. 1, simply titled, Melon.

 

La Mer’s “Olive” course is actually a deconstructed Greek salad.

I was dazzled, both by what this course did and didn’t do. It looked simple: three different-size rectangles of melon, one watermelon, one cantaloupe, one honeydew. A scattering of arugula and one small mint leaf atop each melon.

But when you tasted the melon, bam! Black salt, slivers of candied ginger and, believe it or not, cumin. Too much cumin and the melon would taste like a taco, but this was the deftest sprinkling. Restraint works.

Course No. 2: Tomato. This was tomatoes any way you could think of. First, a knot of little Ho Farms tomatoes on a round of avocado. Second, a tomato and fennel tartar, on a phyllo cracker, topped with ogo. Third, two spoons of sauce.

One was a spoonful of a more or less traditional Indian tomato chutney, a little sweet, not too spicy. It sat cheek-to-cheek with a chunkier, spicier green tomatillo relish.

Eaten together, rolled on the tongue, these managed to almost blow a fuse on your flavor receptors.

Not enough tomato for you? There was also, in a Hennessy cognac glass, with a bit of crushed ice, tomato water. Just tomato water, a little salt, and olive oil from the farmers of Mani in Southern Greece. You sipped this like wine.

We sipped it instead of wine. Toyama, who coupled the melon course with a pretty, feminine Viognier, had uncorked a Provençal dry rose to complement the tomatoes. He wanted it room temperature to uncover its earthiness, but like many of even the best dry roses, the temperature brought out its bitterness. We didn’t mind, the tomato water was bracing.

Course No. 3: Olive. This was, in essence, a deconstructed Greek salad, only a little lettuce, some nearly pickled baby cucumber (note to Garg: less vinegar), nearly translucent bits of red onion, and black and vivid-green olives. The black olives came with bits of feta. The green were stuffed with goat cheese. Both were some of the best olives I’ve tasted, clean, not too briny, alive.

The waiter said they were Kalamata, but they clearly weren’t. I asked Garg what kind they were. “Don’t know,” he said. “I found them in my pantry at home. Someone sent them to me.” He may by this time have looked at the label.

 
Eggplant seldom gets this dressed up.

Toyama matched this with a Sancerre. We were drinking only an ounce or so of wine per course, fortunately. But even that much Sancerre is a wondrous palate cleanser.

Course No. 4: Corn. Each course seemed better than the last, but the fourth course blew all three of the previous courses away. It was soup—that is, a corn bisque that seemed powerful with butter and cream, yet had none of those things.

“It couldn’t,” said Garg. “We get more calls for vegan than vegetarian, so all I have to do with this menu is take the cheese off a few dishes, remove some butter, and it’s totally vegan.”

The bisque had both Kahuku corn for sweetness and flavor, and Dakota corn for milkiness, blended with shallots, leeks and a Hawaiian chili pepper until it flowed across the palate like thick, spicy cream.

Too homogenous for you? The bisque was poured over a corn salsa for crunch.

Not enough corn? The soup came with a little cone of popcorn.

Toyama came up with a brilliant match for this, a Leitz Riesling which, though drier than an average Auslese, still had enough fruitiness to stand up to the spice.

Course No. 5: Earth. Not dirt, obviously. Garg found his earthiness from mushrooms and root veggies (carrots, beets, radishes). Once again, this looked simple, but where was all that flavor coming from? The pale sauce, what was it?

Not butter, though almost that rich. It was pureed sunchoke. Not an artichoke, a sunchoke is the tuberous root of a species of sunflower. It has powerful umami, as much as consuming steak.

This was such a meaty course that Toyama uncorked a pinot noir so rich on the nose it almost seemed a cabernet. Where did he get such a wine? From Brda, Slovenia, near the Italian border. The producer is Mavia, and good luck finding it. Toyama gets a case every few years.

Course No. 6: Eggplant. Again three ways: grilled, done up katsu style and turned into eggplant caviar with a square of grilled tofu. (Note to Garg: Back off on the citrus in the eggplant caviar.)

This was good, though perhaps not to the level of the previous courses. Garg wasn’t happy with the way it turned out. “I think I will add some Bragg’s Amino Acids for more flavor pop,” he said.

Finally, dessert: Mango. Kulfi is a kind of Indian ice cream, often sold to kids on a stick. Kulfi isn’t whipped like ice cream, so it’s denser and melts more slowly.

 

An Indian kids’ treat called kulfi, dressed up with 23K gold foil for La Mer’s vegetarian menu.

Of course, we didn’t get our mango kulfi on a stick. Pastry chef Mark Freischmidt had taken this traditional Indian treat and gone nuts. His kulfi came topped with 23K gold foil.

Not fancy enough for you? The plate also offered shortbread cookies, fruit pates and a tube full of pistachio cream. Literally. Freischmidt had gotten some new empty tubes (like you’d get toothpaste in), filled them with a rich green pistachio cream, crimped the ends and put one on each plate. I was tempted to squirt the pistachio cream directly into my mouth. But this was La Mer, as elegant a restaurant as Hawaii affords. I minded my manners.

Toyama completed the dessert with a Sauternes, which is like drinking the essence of every peach, plum, apricot and nectarine you’ve tasted.

Dinner took nearly four hours and was so entertaining—what could possibly come out next?—the time seemed to fly by.

I’ve sat through many six-course dinners. They can be overwhelming. By the meat course (often something that would normally seem wonderful, like rare Colorado lamb), you’re so full, you don’t even want to look at it.

This dinner was perfect. You were sated, but not comatose. The only thing I couldn’t eat were the little chocolates, candies and cookies that arrived at meal’s end. I’ve never figured out why you only get them in restaurants like La Mer, after a dinner so long you’re in no position to appreciate them. No one ever serves them after a Chinese-chicken-salad lunch.

Shades of Per Se, the vegetarian degustation at La Mer is $165, plus $85 for the wine pairings. If $500 for two seems too much to you for vegetables, you haven’t tasted these vegetables.

John Heckathorn has been writing award-winning restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984.

 

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