Plant-based food is riding high in 2017, a fact reflected in the sophistication and diversity of vegan dishes on offer during this year’s Maine Restaurant Week, which begins today and runs through March 12.
The annual event features special prices on multicourse meals and a great excuse, should you need one, to get out of the house and try new eateries.
More than 70 restaurants are participating this year, and almost half of them – 34 – offer vegan meals and 58 have vegetarian choices. The event’s website, mainerestaurantweek.com, provides vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free search features.
When Maine Restaurant Week began in 2009, the vegan and vegetarian dishes tended toward pasta and risotto.
Last year, I noticed a change for the better in the treatment of plant-based dishes. The trend continues this year, with a number of the vegan dishes now spotlighting beans in imaginative and often elegant ways.
According to Maine chefs and restaurant owners, vegan choices have evolved in response to demand from the dining public – including non-vegans.
To get a sense of the sophistication of today’s vegan palate, consider what Petite Jacqueline in the Old Port is cooking during restaurant week: The meal starts with roasted beet and baby kale salad with blood orange vinaigrette, moves on to cassoulet de legume and ends with sorbet. The entree, which is not on the restaurant’s regular menu, is made with black lentils and kidney and cannellini beans, “all cooked separately until tender in a vegetable stock that we make with root vegetables, mushrooms and herbs,” according to chef Kyle Robinson. The cassoulet is served in a cast iron skillet with roasted root vegetables and sauteed kale. The finishing touch is Meyer lemon gremolata and a kale chip topping.
Over at Gather in Yarmouth, Maine Restaurant Week-goers who are vegan can feast on a Farm Salad, followed by root vegetable curry with lentil ragu – recently added to the restaurant’s regular menu in response to requests for more vegetarian dishes, owner Matt Chappell said. For dessert, a mini bundt cake comes with raspberry coulis; vegetarians can add whipped cream.
While most of the participating restaurants are concentrated in southern and midcoast Maine, El El Frijoles in Sargentville near Blue Hill is an exception. At this time of year, the burrito spot is open just Wednesdays and Thursdays, but it will offer restaurant week meal deals – three island-themed burritos – on those days. Two of the burritos can be made vegan by replacing meat or fish with tofu, tempeh or mushrooms.
Chef Michele Levesque also plans to make horchata, a traditional sweetened rice-cinnamon drink that is naturally vegan.
These restaurants are responding to market forces. Both Chappell and Levesque are seeing greater numbers of non-vegan customers who nonetheless are looking for more plant-based dishes when they dine out.
At the same time, finely crafted vegan dishes reflect a new approach to plant-based cooking on the part of chefs, Chappell said.
“It’s a move away from the afterthought toward being forward-thinking and being more proactive than reactive,” he said. In the past, he said, a chef might make “a generic pasta dish and call it good versus (today) thinking ahead and saying, ‘How do we get creative with different dining needs, whether gluten-free, vegetarian or vegan?’ ”
Levesque and Robinson see other factors at play, too, possibly the rising cost of fish and meat, definitely the abundance of top-notch vegetables grown in Maine.
“Diners are a lot more concerned about what they are eating and where it is coming from,” Robinson said. “Our local farmers offer an abundant source of vegetables, basically year-round, and there isn’t a better outlet for those then offering plant-based dishes.”
Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at: