Rich Landau used to spend a lot of his time explaining, apologizing and defending the vegetable-based menu at Vedge, the Philadelphia restaurant where he is chef and co-owner. Ten years and a James Beard-Award nomination later, Landau has switched from defense to offense as the menus at Vedge and sibling operations V Street and Fancy Radish in Washington, D.C., regularly garner praise for their creativity and patron appeal.
Landau shared his hard-knocks experiences during the Global Plant-Forward Culinary Summit, a digital initiative hosted by the Culinary Institute of America. His session, Beyond Peanut Butter and Jelly, put the spotlight on the category he considers a natural transition point to plant-forward cuisine. He and his fellow presenters made a compelling argument in favor of sandwiches as gateway items to meatless dining.
Flavor forward: Bill Billenstein, senior director of culinary & nutrition strategy at Guckenheimer, a corporate foodservice management company, said flavor transfer and texture are key to making meat substitutes attractive, which he demonstrated with items like the celery root Reuben sandwich with “fancy pastrami spread.” To make the sandwich, he starts by brining celery root in pastrami spices and topping it with the spread, which uses meat scraps from the slicer. Eggplant makes a nice substitute for celery root in warmer months, he said, and simple ketchup replaces the meat spread for a vegetarian version.
Landau’s roasted carrot choripán is a play on a traditional Argentine chorizo sandwich, in which the carrots that stand in for the sausage are roasted in a spice blend and finished with chimichurri sauce. His smoky mushroom BLT is spiced up with smoked paprika and cooled down with basil mayonnaise. On a more assertive note, his street-food-inspired offerings at V Street include The Nash Hot, a play on the popular chicken sandwich that marries Nashville Hot tempeh with ranch slaw, tomato and the requisite pickles.
Cruciferous variations: Billenstein’s cauliflower bánh mì with walnut and mushroom pâté taps into two trends by combining the Vietnamese national sandwich and the ongoing cauliflower craze. The pâté is a clever, meat-free variation on the standard, and its spreadability is enhanced by the use of cooked cannellini beans.
Cauliflower continues its extraordinary reinvention as a go-to ingredient in the cauliflower shawarma at Taïm in New York City, where the shawarma-spiced vegetable is plated with hummus, Israeli salad, pickled cabbage, tahini and amba, a pickled mango condiment, and pita bread.
No. 7 Sub in New York City has long championed crucifers with innovative limited-time options like its roasted cauliflower sub with fried shallots, romaine and chutney mayonnaise, or its Brussels sprouts sandwich with Granny Smith apple and crushed peanuts. A staple on its permanent menu, the long-running Broccoli Classic, is dressed with lychee muchim, or pickle, feta cheese and fried shallots.
Creative condiments: Chefs across the country are validating both Landau’s enthusiasm for plant-based sandwiches and Billenstein’s emphasis on taste and texture. Sam & Gertie’s, an iconoclastic vegan deli in Chicago, features Goldie’s Laks, which puts a house-made lox substitute on a bagel along with tomato, red onion, crispy cucumber and dill-pickle cream cheese.
The roasted sweet potato sandwich, a fixture on the menu at 16-unit Wildflower, based in Phoenix, Ariz., benefits from goat cheese and fig confit on herb focaccia.
The Little Beet, operating nine fast-casual units out of New York City, turned to toast for some of its meatless options. The breakfast avocado toast it recently offered is spiked with sweet chile garlic sauce, avocado bean dip and turmeric almonds. Sister restaurant Little Beet Table is serving an avocado toast with sunny-side-up eggs, pickled onion, flaxseed macha salsa and market greens for brunch.
So does The Urban Picnic menu at Fancy Radish in Washington, D.C., which attracts patrons jonesing for barbecue with its smoked Chioggia beet toast topped with smoked tofu, crushed cucumber, tomato and capers.
Atlanta’s Upbeet restaurant boasts a trio of toasts. In addition to avocado toast with red-pepper flakes and sea salt, there is the Labne Long Time that marries the eponymous cheese with heirloom cherry tomatoes and pesto, and Pearfection made with pear, organic blue cheese, walnuts and organic honey. All are available on sprouted wheat or gluten-free millet-chia bread. Optional upgrades include a cage-free egg or gluten-free granola.
Looking ahead, attention to plant-powered dishes of all stripes will receive a major boost from the CIA’s Plant-Forward Certification Initiative, a training and talent-development program in partnership with Google. The objective is to increase skill development and engagement in plant-forward cuisine without ever losing sight of the importance of deliciousness as a fundamental consumer appeal.
Nancy Kruse, President of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta. As one of Linked In’s Top 100 Influencers in the US, she blogs regularly on food-related subjects on the Linked In website.