By Caroline Dipping
For all of San Diego’s cred as a farm-to-fork, sustainable, seasonally driven dining town, eating out as an honest-to-goodness, card-carrying vegetarian can sometimes be pretty hard to swallow. The pickings become more meager still if an elegant atmosphere with haute cuisine is in order.
A few months back, Executive Chef Trey Foshee of George’s California Modern unveiled a vegetarian menu alongside his seasonal offerings. This was no halfhearted stab at meatless cuisine with just an uninspired steamed veggie plate or a slapdash pasta, but rather a thoughtful, tasteful roster complete with starters, entrees and vegan options.
Chestnut-Ricotta Ravioli with Kabocha Squash, Sage and Truffle Parmesan Fondue. Fried California Avocado, a fanned composition of light half-moons fried tempura style and accompanied by a dusting of crushed corn nuts, citrusy cabbage salad and spicy aioli. Hearty Farroto mingling with grilled portobello mushrooms, onion confit, garlic-parsley cream and topped with a perfectly poached egg.
Foshee began noodling over the idea of a high-end vegetarian menu a year after conducting a series of Side Table events in George’s bar. The vegetarian-themed Side Table was the one event that sold out both nights it was offered.
“I met a couple who told me they love going out to dine and enjoy a good bottle of wine, but they feel, as vegetarians, they are alienated from a lot of special events restaurants hold, such as Cooks Confab,” said Foshee, referring to the local chefs group that gathers throughout the year to create meals centered on a theme or central ingredient. “Nothing is geared toward vegetarians. In a lot of ways, it is geared to the extreme.”
As an exercise, Foshee took home his menu prep list and challenged himself to build as many vegetarian dishes from it as he could. He was surprised at the outcome.
“I thought, ‘Geez, we are already prepping all this stuff.’ Since our (regular) menu revolves around the vegetable aspect of a dish anyway, I was able to create a menu without adding a whole other layer of work onto it.
“A lot of our dishes are built that way, from the vegetable up, rather than from the protein on,” Foshee said. “I thought maybe we could do it.”
The reality of busy restaurant service is that a vegetarian is lucky if the chef does much more than omit the meat component from a dish or assign a line cook the task of coming up with a veg plate.
For the first month and a half, Foshee quietly offered his new menu alongside his regular menu, but took no pains to hype it. This soft introduction was due partly to his and partner George Hauer’s concern that George’s established clientele might think the restaurant was going all vegetarian.
But the orders trickled in. Appetizer, soup and salad orders were going down, while the vegetarian items were going up.
Andrew Spurgin, executive director of Waters Fine Catering and a founding chef of the Cooks Confab, said he knows of no other restaurant in San Diego offering vegetarian cuisine at the level Foshee is, but he feels the tide is turning.
“I can tell you that just this morning, I wrote four different vegetarian menus for clients,” Spurgin said. “I’ve absolutely never seen so much of the vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free interest as I have recently.
“I’ve really noticed this quantum shift in the last two years, this tipping point of people wanting local, regional, sustainable, all those words that have sadly been beaten to death. People are taking more of a vested interest in where their food is coming from and what they are eating.”
The suppliers for Foshee’s vegetarian menu are the same as those for his meat-laden menu. Revered outfits include Chino Farms, Crows Pass, Specialty Produce.
Because vernal produce is so fleeting — with sweet peas at their peak for just a couple of weeks or the short window that ramps are available — Foshee promises the spring menu will change frequently.
“The menu changes when it needs to change,” he said. “When an ingredient goes out of season or I get tired or bored of doing it, the menu changes.
“I find myself looking more and more at vegetable preparations specifically and having those influence my non-vegetarian items,” he said. “I keep toying with it.”
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1Ú2 white onion, peeled and minced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 cups farro (chef prefers Anson Mills brand, see note)
1 cup white wine
8 cups mushroom stock, hot (see note)
1Ú2 cup parmesan cheese
Salt and black pepper
2 portobello mushrooms
1Ú4 cup balsamic vinegar
1Ú4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 thyme sprigs
2 garlic cloves, smashed
Salt and pepper
12 pearl onions, peeled
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
1Ú2 cup garlic cloves, peeled
1 cup Italian parsley leaves
1Ú2 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper
6 large eggs
Makes 6 appetizer servings
For the farro: In a medium-sized sauce pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic, and cook until soft but not colored, about 10 minutes. Add the farro and toast for about 5 minutes, then deglaze with the white wine and reduce until almost dry. Add mushroom stock 1 cup at a time while stirring continuously until the farro is soft with a bit of a bite, about 20 minutes, depending on the brand of farro. As soon as you see the kernels begin to “pop,” remove pan from the heat and add the parmesan and season with salt and black pepper. Adjust with more stock if needed.
For the mushrooms: In a medium bowl, marinate the mushrooms with the smashed garlic, balsamic vinegar, olive oil and thyme and let sit 15 minutes. Grill or roast mushrooms in a hot oven. Reserve in a warm place.
For the onions: Slice the onions in half and sear them cut side down in a saute pan with the olive oil until well caramelized. Deglaze with sherry vinegar, turning down the heat to just above a simmer and reduce slowly till almost dry. Add the honey and stir to coat the onions; reserve in a warm place.
For the garlic-parsley cream: Place the garlic in a medium-sized pot and fill with water. Bring to a boil, strain, refill and repeat three times. Strain the garlic. Bring another pot of water to a boil and plunge the parsley leaves into it for about 1 minute and remove to a bowl of iced water to stop the cooking immediately, squeeze out all the water and reserve. Bring cream to a simmer and combine the garlic, parsley and cream in a blender and blend until completely smooth, strain through a fine mesh strainer, and reserve.
To serve: Poach the eggs. Spoon the farro into six bowls, top with mushrooms and onions and place an egg on top. Coat the egg with the garlic-parsley sauce.
Notes: Anson Mills farro is available online at ansonmills.com. Other types of farro are available at specialty stores such as Whole Foods and Seaside Market. The chef makes his own mushroom stock, but mushroom stock can be purchased at specialty stores.
— From chef Trey Foshee
Caroline Dipping writes about food for The San Diego Union-Tribune.
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