Plant-based, a culinary buzzword that’s slowly ushering out vegan, doesn’t necessarily come with a textbook definition. Yet, in the past few years, Manhattan has experienced a swell of establishments that pledge their allegiance to fruits and vegetables, so much so that the catchphrase has become an entirely new genre of restaurant.
As the expression suggests, plant-based establishments celebrate things that grow from the ground, and, generally speaking, ingredients not procured from animals. But, depending on the eye of the beholder, some use the term to also explain eateries that focus heavily on vegetables, though they offer meat or dairy, too.
Consider plant-based to be a modern interpretation of veganism in which a venue honors wholesome ingredients, as opposed to seitan or other protein sources that serve as meat replacements and which are usually processed products less healthful than some might think.
Perhaps inspired by the beautiful seasonal cookery to which Los Angeles has laid claim for years, in addition to Americans’ overall newfound interest in general wellness, recently Manhattan chefs have turned their focus to vegetables, flipping the popular side dish into a main attraction. Below, some of New York City’s strongest players in the veg-isphere.
Chef John Fraser—who some might recall from stalwart Upper West Side fine dining gem Dovetail, or Narcissa at The Standard hotel—debuted his ode to plants, Nix, almost a year ago, in partnership with former Condé Nast editorial director James Truman. In less than a year, the sunny, comfortable number has earned a Michelin star for Fraser’s sophisticated approach to vegetable-forward cookery. Sleeper hits include Fraser’s play on egg salad with habanero cream and skinny fried potato sticks; butternut potato fry bread with trumpet mushrooms and watercress salad; and shiitake “cacao e pepe” with green beans and creamy polenta.
In 2012, chef Guy Vaknin experimented with a colorful, more sustainable approach to sushi by subbing in vegetables for fish, and a variety of vibrant grains for white rice. The result: Beyond Sushi, a fast casual concept founded in Union Square, focused on a rainbow of rolls, some stuffed with avocado and sweet potato, others topped with black-bean puree and kaffir-lime chips. Quickly gaining momentum, less than one year later Beyond Sushi snagged a spot within Chelsea Market and not long after that, Midtown debuted. This year, the chainlet is slated to drop two more New York locations: Midtown and Financial District, with a third possible opening near the end of the year. Meanwhile, also expanding beyond rolled rice, last year Beyond Sushi introduced dumplings and noodle salad—adding to its colorful bed of plant-based power.
Chef Brooks Headley was the James Beard award–winning pastry chef at Mario Batali, Joe & Lidia Bastianich, and Mark Ladner’s fine dining Italian temple, Del Posto, but in 2015 he jumped ship to sell a concise menu of inspired fast-food favorites all vegetarian, many devoid of animal products altogether. Even carnivores flipped for the tiny, inexpensive East Village boîte, and the venue has quickly earned a name for its burgers and burnt-broccoli salad.
Before New York really began to embrace vegetables, in 2004 there was Matthew Kenney and his former girlfriend Sarma Melngailis’s Pure Food and Wine, basically one of the city’s first raw restaurants fancy enough you’d want to wear heels. The duo proved that uncooked vegetables could be sexy, and the eatery lived on until just recently. Considering the future of food, last year Kenney launched Double Zero, an East Village veggie-centered Italian number hinged on inventively topped pizzas. Zero animal ingredients to be found here, meaning that mozzarella is made from cashews and the ricotta from almonds and macadamia nuts.
Kaiseki—Japan’s highest culinary art—is an ancient type of cuisine based on balance (partially in terms of ingredients’ flavor, color, temperature, texture), which takes form as an intricately detailed, multicourse meal made from seasonal, local ingredients. Kajitsu, an excellent, oft-overlooked gem near Murray Hill, serves an elegant, beautifully plated vegetarian tasting menu based on Japanese Shojin cuisine, the original form of kaiseki based on the plant-based principles of Zen Buddhism. Pro tip: While the second floor eatery offers tables, the best move is to grab a seat at the chef’s counter for a tasting menu meal.
Ravi DeRossi’s Empire: Mother of Pearl, Avant Garden, Ladybird
Perhaps you’ve had a complicated cocktail at the East Village’s Death & Co., one of Manhattan’s most respected, proper cocktail bars. The visionary behind that stalwart is Ravi DeRossi, and over the years he’s gone on to open a slew of bars and eateries around the city. But most recently, his prerogative has been to flip many of his venues vegan, and open new places totally dedicated to plants, too. Although it wasn’t entirely vegan when it first opened in 2015, East Village tiki bar and tropical eatery Mother of Pearl (formerly DeRossi’s Gin Palace) now omits all animal ingredients, yet still serves exotic drinks and Island-friendly bites, like poke made from apples and sweet potatoes. Going for a more upscale and intimate approach to meat-free, just a few months later DeRossi brought Avant Garden to the East Village, and seemingly within seconds the 28-seat eatery was one of the toughest seats in town, the mushroom toast being an immediate standout. This past summer Ladybird (formerly DeRossi’s The Bourgeois Pig) joined the West Village scene, a tapas joint that serves cocktails and gets creative with plants: look no further than the butternut-squash hummus and caramelized artichoke hearts. But that’s just the start. DeRossi’s Cuban nook Cienfuegos is going plant-based February 14; meanwhile, Ladybird will move into a larger TBD space, with plans for the brand to expand to Hollywood and possibly Miami.