Faith Woodman eats out regularly. However, as a vegan she doesn’t always find what she’s looking for on restaurant menus. Not long ago, she was at a Brunswick restaurant (that will remain nameless), and the best the kitchen could rustle up for her was a plate of lettuce leaves.

Other times chefs – even in unlikely places – happily surprise her. Take the evening last summer when she and her husband were visiting friends on Lake Webb near Mount Blue State Park. For dinner, they went to the Kawanhee Inn and Restaurant in Weld.

“It was a gorgeous location, and we were sitting outside watching the sun set,” said Woodman, who lives in Bath. “But they didn’t have anything on the menu that was vegan. So I asked the waiter if the chef could make something.”

The answer was yes, and the chef prepared a citrus quinoa salad. Woodman had frequently eaten similar salads, but after just one bite of the Kawanhee Inn version, she knew “this one was the best. It was fresh and tasty.”

More recently, Woodman’s daughter arranged a family dinner at 76 Pleasant Street in Norway. When making the reservations, her daughter told the restaurant there would be a vegan in the party. They cooked an off-menu vegan pad thai for Woodman, who described it as the “best ever.”

CALL AHEAD

While chefs continue to add vegan dishes to their printed menus (and often report the dishes sell much better than they expected), many restaurants don’t offer completely plant-based entrees.

Yet savvy diners like Woodman know this doesn’t mean a vegan meal is out of the question. As Woodman said, you should always call, “because in my experience they want to bring you in and please you, especially if you are coming with several other people. Chefs can really showcase their skills when preparing a superb vegan dish. It’s one thing to make an excellent meat or seafood dish, but quite another to prepare an excellent vegan entrée.”

Sherry Kaplan is a vegan who lives in Cumberland and dines out frequently. She and her husband were eager to try the tasting menu at Tao Yuan in Brunswick, but Kaplan wasn’t sure the chef could accommodate her.

“I called the restaurant and they said, ‘Absolutely, if we know in advance,’ ” Kaplan said. As a result of her call, she dined on multiple vegan dishes that were all “excellent.”

Like Woodman, Kaplan has had disappointing experiences when requesting an off-menu vegan meal. However, she finds that chefs in Maine tend to be better at this creative cookery than their counterparts in other states.

“The quality of the produce here is so much higher, I’ve found, than any other place,” Kaplan said. “Chefs seem excited by what they can get and what they’re growing in their own gardens. The best chefs really like to show off all the veggies.”

CREATIVE KITCHENS

Caiola’s Abby Harmon is one such chef. The menu at the restaurant in Portland’s West End always includes two vegetarian entrees, and Harmon delivers complex, satisfying meals when she has a vegan in the house.

“We love working with seasonal vegetables, making them the star of the plate,” Harmon said. “Oftentimes we will take a single vegetable and cook it two or three different ways. This helps showcase both the freshness and the deep flavors that you can get from a single vegetable.”

Right now this technique is visible on Caiola’s menu in a carrot hummus (that can be easily made vegan by leaving off the accompanying feta), which is made with roasted carrots and served with a raw carrot salad.

Harmon uses beans and grains throughout her menu, which means she always has these vegetarian staples ready to serve as a foundation for a solid vegan meal. At this time of year that might be pea-lafel. The crispy fritters are deep-fried like traditional falafel but use fresh peas (instead of chickpeas) flavored with cilantro and mint. Harmon garnishes this off-menu vegan dish with pea shoots.

“We have definitely seen an increase in vegan requests at Caiola’s,” Harmon told me. “Usually, several times a week we will have a request. Sometimes customers will call ahead, and that’s when we can really get creative.”

In downtown Portland at Five Fifty-Five, chef Steve Corry said the number of requests for vegan meals has grown in recent years and now stands at roughly 10 each week. Corry isn’t “sure if this is due to an increase in the number of people who are choosing to pursue this lifestyle or that our reputation for accommodating such requests is spreading.”

Five Fifty-Five’s menu always includes a listing for a vegetarian Chef’s Whim. Corry uses this approach so the waitstaff can ask the guest about his or her diet (vegan? vegetarian? gluten-free?) and taste preferences (mushrooms? dairy? soy?).

“When we receive the information in the kitchen, a quick dialogue is bandied about to develop a cohesive dish to suit the diner’s tastes,” Corry said.

Corry added that “we pride ourselves on vegetable cookery and spend a lot of effort sourcing local produce so at all times we have plenty of toys in the box, which makes the improvisation a welcome challenge when the time comes.”

Avery Yale Kamila is a freelance writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at:

[email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.