I’m always excited for March because it signals the imminent return of spring and the immediate arrival of 12 days of Maine Restaurant Week, when chefs lower the prices on their signature dishes. This year, at least 26 participating restaurants across Maine will prepare vegan food as part of their end-of-winter meal deals.

Both Tiqa Pan Mediterranean and Evo Kitchen + Bar in Portland’s Old Port are offering deals on dishes from their regular, vegan-friendly menus. In Gorham, MK Kitchen includes its popular vegan quinoa bowl as an entree choice on its special Restaurant Week menu.

Novio’s Bistro in Bangor, Slates in Hallowell and 40 Paper in Camden are among the restaurants serving vegan Restaurant Week dishes, but their menus hadn’t been finalized by press time. Some participating restaurants list their plant-based dishes on their event menus. Others don’t but will make an off-menu vegan dish for Restaurant Week diners who request one.

At Little Giant in Portland’s West End, chef Neil Ross is participating in Maine’s annual event for the first time (he’s taken part in New York City’s Restaurant Week in the past). He decided to offer vegan options on the restaurant’s special three-course menu, although vegan dishes are not always listed on the regular menu at Little Giant.

The vegan meal at Little Giant begins with a smoky beet salad that Ross said has been a top-seller on the winter menu. The cooked beets are dressed in a pureed cashew and guajillo chili sauce, drizzled with Meyer lemon vinaigrette and sprinkled with shaved horseradish. Ross makes traditional Wabanaki root crop sunchokes (also known as Jerusalem artichokes) the star ingredient in the vegan entree – casarecce pasta that’s tossed with pureed sunchokes. The sunchokes are first braised with onions and folded into a Swiss chard puree. To finish, the dish is topped with handmade sunchoke chips.

“Sunchokes are an interesting ingredient that I’ve been using for years in many different ways,” said Ross, who gets his supply from Stonecipher Farm in Bowdoinham. “A sunchoke has the texture of jicama and the taste of braised artichokes.”

Little Giant finishes its vegan Restaurant Week meal with a lime and coconut tart.

For Maine Restaurant Week, Gather Restaurant in Yarmouth plans to serve a vegan General Tso’s Cauliflower. (The dish is usually made with chicken.) Photo courtesy of Gather restaurant

In Yarmouth, Gather has been participating in Restaurant Week for years and using it to showcase its bestselling dishes, which always include vegan options. This year, the three-course vegan meal at Gather begins with a salad of field greens, fennel and sliced citrus tossed with an herbed vinaigrette. The salad is destined for the spring menu, after being previewed during Restaurant Week.

Regulars at Gather will recognize the vegan second course selection on the Restaurant Week menu.

“It’s been on the regular menu for six to eight months,” said Gather owner Matt Chappell of the General Tso’s cauliflower. “It’s a very popular dish.”

Chef Colin Kelly created the vegan version of the Americanized Chinese deep-fried chicken dish. Chappell said Kelly “was challenging himself to come up with a tasty vegan dish that wasn’t a pasta dish or a risotto, which we’ve done before and so we wanted to do something different.”

The cauliflower is batter dipped (rice flour, nutritional yeast) and deep fried before being tossed in a sauce containing tamari, peanut butter, sesame oil and a touch of the Korean hot pepper paste gochujang. It’s served on top of a fried rice made with the day’s mushroom medley delivered by local grower North Spore and garnished with charred bok choy. Gather’s vegan meal finishes with a raspberry granita.

Sea Glass executive chef Andrew Chadwick at the Inn by the Sea in Cape Elizabeth has offered vegan dishes on his Restaurant Week menus for years and said the three-course special menu for 2020 is “more of a tasting menu built off dishes we have on the main menu.”

Those who order an all-vegan Restaurant Week meal at Sea Glass start with a variation on the restaurant’s popular mushroom torchon. (Torchon is normally made with foie gras.)

At the Sea Glass restaurant in Cape Elizabeth, this flower pot is actually a whimsical vegan dessert created for Restaurant Week. Photo courtesy of Inn by the Sea

“We take the wild mushrooms and cook them down with soy milk and Madeira and brandy and fresh thyme,” Chadwick said. “Then we set it with agar agar (a vegetarian gelatin), roll it in plastic wrap and cut it in discs.”

The torchon is sprinkled with toasted almonds, shaved celery and rye crumble and served with crackers. Next up on the vegan menu at Sea Glass is grilled, glazed tempeh. The tempeh is marinated with kaffir lime juice, soy sauce, chili and brown sugar before being charred and then roasted, which creates the tempeh’s glaze. It’s served with soy-braised carrots, lemongrass basmati rice and a sprinkle of sesame seeds and nori for a vegan version of Japanese furikake (a Japanese seasoning mix often sprinkled over rice or fish).

The Sea Glass vegan dessert takes the cake — and the flower pot — for the most unusual presentation. Pastry chef Rie Akizaki fills terra cotta flower pots with dark chocolate and coconut milk mousse. She covers their surface with crumbled chocolate olive oil cake and bakes the pots. Before she serves the dish, she “plants” edible flowers in the chocolate “soil.” The dessert comes with chestnut and coconut cream sprinkled with sea salt and cacao nibs.

“You’d think it would have tons of cream and egg yolks,” Chadwick said. “You would never know it’s vegan.”

Or that it’s dessert rather than decoration. Culinary surprises like flowerpot desserts make sampling the vegan offerings at Maine Restaurant Week an adventure and a prelude to spring I look forward to every year.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at
[email protected]
Twitter: Avery Yale Kamila


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