Maine Restaurant Week is an opportunity to shake off the cabin fever and try a new eatery. And those of us who eat vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free don’t need to stay home.
This year, more than 50 restaurants from Dedham to Kennebunkport have crafted Restaurant Week dishes to tempt those of us who aren’t enthused about mainstream menu fare.
As an example, some of the vegan dishes featured during the dining event that takes place from March 1 to 10 include chili rellenos with white bean puree at Bueno Loco in Falmouth; roasted wild mushrooms with zesty quinoa, root vegetables and herb pistou at Forks in the Air Mountain Bistro in Rangeley; and the almond tempeh stuffed vegetable medley with cucumber, mint and cilantro raita at the Pepperclub in Portland.
The Restaurant Week website makes it easy to find restaurants catering to diners with alternative diets. In addition to searching by price and city, the site allows users to search for vegetarian-, vegan- and gluten-free-friendly menus.
The most elaborate vegetarian Restaurant Week menu can be found at David’s Opus Ten in Portland’s Monument Square. (It’s also almost entirely gluten-free, with the exception of a fennel butter cookie in the dessert course.)
While most Restaurant Week menus feature three courses, the Opus Ten menu is actually a seven-course tasting dinner with dishes such as warm acorn squash and bean salad with a lemon, cumin and curry dressing and grilled cauliflower with black bean-garlic puree, braised kale and a brown butter nage, or broth.
Last week, the restaurant-within-a-restaurant debuted a new prix fixe menu that features a choice of either a meat or vegetarian menu for $55, plus wine. The same menu will be offered during Restaurant Week for $45.
Since he opened Opus Ten almost a year and a half ago, chef David Turin has regularly tweaked the tasting menu to accommodate diners’ requests for gluten-free, dairy-free or vegan. He even did an all-raw tasting menu once for a large party.
Turin said part of the Opus Ten experience is enjoying a carefully orchestrated meal where all the flavors blend into a harmonious melody. When he and his team create substitute dishes on the fly, he said he sometimes feels the tune falters.
“This will make it much less happenstance for people who come in with different dietary needs,” Turin said.
Turin designed the Opus Ten menus so each dish pairs with a particular wine. After the intermezzo, or fourth course, diners switch from white wine to red.
“The whole thing about Opus is not about the individual dishes, it’s about how they fit together as a whole,” Turin said. “One of the challenges of writing the menus side by side is to make the timber of the menus similar. So you’re not having a wildly different experience.”
Creating a vegetarian menu is familiar terrain for Turin.
“I personally tend to eat vegetarian about 80 percent of the time,” Turin said and credits his eating style to his 15-year-old daughter, who has been a vegetarian for more than five years.
“I started to recognize that there are unbelievable combinations of vegetables and grains and herbs and all this stuff that doesn’t require the introduction of meat,” Turin said. “One of my pet peeves with the vegetarian dining experience (in restaurants) is that it’s often just more and more vegetables lumped together in an incongruous way.”
Because Restaurant Week is so busy (18-seat Opus Ten was already half full for the event three weeks ago), Turin said he won’t be able to accommodate requests for vegan or dairy-free menus, but he will do so after Restaurant Week is over.
A good spot to find a vegetarian and a vegan Restaurant Week menu is at the Tavern at Brunswick Station in downtown Brunswick. There, chef Kevin Cunningham works to ensure his menu and his staff are always able to accommodate special dietary requests.
For Restaurant Week, the Tavern will offer a three-course vegetarian/vegan menu for $25.
“To make real food without meat in it isn’t hard,” Cunningham said. “It’s a fun challenge.”
The vegetarian menu will start with a choice of a salad or the vegan soup of the day, then move to a butternut squash risotto (let them know if you want it vegan) and finish with a choice of a Gelato Fiasco sorbetto or a fruit bowl.
In addition, the house-made foccacia served with all the meals is always vegan. Some of the vegan soups the restaurant makes include black bean tomato cilantro, grilled vegetable, potato and leek and tomato basil bisque made with almond milk.
The restaurant is also able to accommodate anyone wanting a gluten-free meal.
“We really want to be flexible for our guests,” Cunningham said.
Since the restaurant opened two and half years ago, Cunningham has made sure the eatery was welcoming to people with special dietary needs.
“We polled our staff and other managers and asked them when they go out do you have vegetarian or vegan friends?” Cunningham said. “Yes, everybody does. Then we asked, ‘Do you know if there are restaurants you just can’t go to?’ Yes, we all have restaurants … we can’t go to.”
It was obvious from this feedback that people who eat vegan or gluten-free often decide where a group of friends or family members will go to dinner.
“The majority of our guests aren’t vegan or gluten-free, but we want to be an option for everybody,” Cunningham said. “We don’t want to exclude ourselves from a party of eight because one of them can’t dine with us.”
Avery Yale Kamila is a freelancer who lives in Portland, where she writes about health food and enjoys dining out during Maine Restaurant Week. She can be reached at:[email protected]