Friday, July 08, 2005 | I had an awakening a couple of years back. I was in Chicago on business and had the opportunity to dine at Tru, the nationally known restaurant owned by chefs Rick Tremonto and Gail Gand. The restaurant is known for its very contemporary and innovative style of cuisine, its use of fresh, organic produce and its high prices. There were three tasting menu options and after taking a look, I selected the vegetarian option. Carnivore that I am, I surprised myself at the choice. The bento box of small vegetable dishes was simply too much to resist.
Vegetarian and vegan fine dining have not been around for very long. Although you could always call a restaurant ahead of time and request a vegetarian entree, chefs generally found this an intrusion into their profession. But times have changed. Commonly held notions of brown food served on paper plates, hippie servers and a not so pleasing environment are long gone. Rice, grains and vegetables have gained a new place at both ends of the dining spectrum.
You might wonder, how did this happen? First, people became health-conscious; they realized they needed more grains, fruits and vegetables in their lives. They wanted smaller portions. They didn’t want meat or seafood in their diets, and they wanted to continue to dine out. Chefs got a wake-up call. No longer could they offer one vegetarian appetizer and one entree. They needed a variety of options if they wanted to keep customers coming in. So they did what all creative people do; they began to experiment with new products. They found rice and grains from other areas of the world. They looked at fruits and vegetables in new ways. Instead of always being at the side of a plate, these fruits and vegetables became the central focus. They tried fruit purees as sauces. They began seasoning with herbs and spices. And the public jumped on the bandwagon – big time.
Now fine diners find vegetarian tasting menus right there next to the seafood or meat menus. Locals can experience this evolution first hand at Studio at Montage Resort & Spa in Laguna Beach. The restaurant, under the direction of Chef James Boyce, has reached new levels of vegetarian dining. Each dish is a work of art and an explosion of flavors. In the greater Los Angeles area, Sona and Melisse in Santa Monica, will do a full vegetarian or vegan tasting menu as long as it is called in ahead of time. I have been to both restaurants in the last three months and found the restaurants eager to accommodate. At both restaurants our vegetarian lost out on much of her food due to requests from the other diners for tastes. In San Diego, all the fine dining restaurants will honor requests for vegetarian and vegan menus. Regular menus at most of these restaurants offer several appetizer and entree choices.
A bit of advice to the eater or diner: big cities are far more adventurous in catering to the needs of vegetarians and vegans. Much of the country is still a work in progress, but be assured, progress there is. Always be sure to call ahead if you have concerns or questions. And if you are on the road, most of the national chains have responded to the strong demand for vegetarian menu items. Let restaurants know if you feel there isn’t enough variety on the menu. And when there is, or when your special menu is extraordinary, let the management know.
First, I would like to thank all the people who wrote in regarding my op-ed piece.
Hearing the other side of an argument is always a good thing because it makes you stop and think about an issue from a different perspective. That said, as a lover of gastronomy, I see food as much more than something to keep me alive. For me, dining is an art and sensual pleasure to enjoy and treasure. Animals have been used for human consumption since the beginning of time. Many animals are now raised just for that purpose. The force feeding of ducks and geese is just a small blip in a much larger issue.
This issue is agribusiness, which includes not just the animals involved but the millions of people who earn a living working in this huge arena. Before I can reasonably take a look at force-fed ducks and geese, chickens raised in pens with no place to move, the raising of veal calves and fish caught in gill nets, I need to know how we are going to support my fellow human beings who are dependent on the industry for a livelihood for themselves and their families. And for those of you readers who would like to talk directly to Michael Ginor, who owns Hudson Valley Foie Gras in upstate New York, he welcomes your calls at (845) 292-2500, or you may e-mail him at
Pamela J. Wischkaemper is a local food consultant and is the founder of San Diego Gastronomically Correct, a group that goes on the road twice a year to promote the San Diego restaurant industry. The only criterion for membership is having cooked at the James Beard House in New York. Nineteen chefs in San Diego are members.