2014 was a big year for vegetables. With the opening of restaurants like Commissary and The Gadarene Swine, temples to ingredients of the vegetal nature, it is clear that chefs are looking beyond meat to explore California's rich bounty. So move over pork belly and nose to tail cookery, vegetables are all grown up and ready to have their time in the culinary spotlight.
The Gadarene Swine - Cauliflower
Studio City's The Gadarene Swine made a big splash this year as a sort of vegetarian omakase restaurant. Chef Phillip Franklin Lee's cauliflower is a standout on the tasting menu, and is the only dish that is served at both of Lee's restaurants. The dish is a study of cauliflower in its different forms, and is composed of white cauliflower purée, four varieties of blackened cauliflower, red onions cooked in lime juice, pistachios, thai basil, and cauliflower chips.
Starry Kitchen - Young Mustard Greens
While Starry Kitchen is dutifully known for its Chili Crab and Tofu Balls (and the occasional banana suit appearance), its thoughtfully prepared young mustard greens (young gai choy) should never be overlooked. The bitter greens are stir-fried with chunks of peppery pancetta in beef tallow, rendered exclusively for this dish. While you savor the unctuous greens dotted with fatty bits of pork, owner Nguyen Tran rightfully explains his motto for the dish, "Not all veggie dishes have to be healthy!"
Saint Martha - Brassicas
Perhaps one of the most eccentric dishes from the kitchen of Koreatown's New American gem is the brassicas. The cruciferous vegetable comes bathed in brewer's yeast broth and is adorned with mushroom and poached egg. A cursory tasting brings ramen broth to mind, with the hearty brassicas served in lieu of noodles. It is a dish that is difficult to stop eating, partially out of confusion, but primarily because the vegetable dish is so packed with umami that it becomes just as important as all of the meaty plates on the table.
Union - Parsnips
It isn't all chains in Pasadena. Chef Bruce Kalman offers a variety of thoughtful vegetable dishes at his much lauded Union. Take the roasted parsnips and salsify, served with smoked almond romesco and Calabrian chile oil. The humble parsnip is elevated to showcase its sweet, earthy flavor, and proves it is an ingredient that certainly merits being on more menus across the city.
Petit Trois - Celery Root
Like Union, Petit Trois excels at showcasing underutilized vegetables. The celery root remoulade with apples and shaved almond is bright and acidic, and is the perfect complement to rich dishes like the chicken leg or much-celebrated buttery omelet. While the salad is ubiquitous in Parisian bistros, Trois Mec is one of the few restaurants in the city to showcase the knobby root, for which a serious "merci" is in order.
Butchers & Barbers - Squash
The Houston Brothers have been on a serious expansion kick, and most recently brought their thoughtful aesthetic to Butchers & Barbers, their first full restaurant concept. Chef Luke Reyes is serving up an impressive selection of seasonal dishes at what has become one of the hottest restaurants in town. One of the most innovative of which is the delicata squash with persimmon, burrata, and smoked trout roe for a surprising pairing of ingredients that create a perfect harmony of soft and crunchy and sweet and salty flavors.
Little Sister - Okra
Chef Tin Vuong has honed his craft mastering the myriad of funky, spicy, and sweet elements that characterize Southeast Asian cuisine. At Little Sister, okra is used as a canvas upon which Vuong can paint these bold flavors. The okra curry takes the classic Southeast Asian base of garlic and ginger and layers it with bird's eye chilies and turmeric to take the rather mild vegetable to new levels of intensity.
Love & Salt - Fennel
Manhattan Beach's Love & Salt is quickly becoming known for its skillful wood-fired pizzas and rich pastas, but it would be remiss to discount its wide variety of vegetable-centric small plates. Take the shaved kale salad, in the style of an Italian chop with soppressata and pickled peppers, or the delicata squash, wood roasted and served over squash purée and topped with pumpkin seeds. But the real star is the caramelized fennel, smothered in burrata, peperonata, and white anchovy. The fennel and peperonata combine to form a sweet tangle of subdued anise flavor that is nicely counterbalanced by the rich burrata and salinity of the anchovy.
Brilliantshine - Bok choy
While you certainly come for the cocktails, Brilliantshine's small plates with Peruvian flair have merit in their own right. Take the colorful bok choy, with rainbow baby carrots, tomato, and hoisin, and perched atop a vibrant purple cauliflower purée. The dish is a balance of opposing textures and sweet and savory flavors, and is the perfect vegetarian option to pair with a Cox and Goldman cocktail.
Commissary - Carrots
Nothing highlights the Los Angeles vegetable movement quite like Roy Choi's newest full restaurant concept, Commissary. The physical confines of the spaces is reminiscent of a greenhouse, which feels appropriate when handed an illustrated menu of the vegetable dishes on offer. You point to the carrots, which come roasted, charred and served with "green sauce." They are deeply sweet - as close to candy as a vegetable could ever be, and you contemplate the carrot, which we think is the point.