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Where’s the beef? Plant-based entrees gaining favor at local restaurants

By Rod Lee

Central Massachusetts restaurateurs including Elaine Cowan who is owner and chef de cuisine at UXLocale on W. Hartford Ave. in Uxbridge do not need Burger King’s heavy promotional advertising to tell them that plant-based foods are becoming all the rage.

While a question The Feisty Fork column posed to some of the region’s restaurant owners and managers—“to what extent are plant-based appetizers and entrees showing up on your menu?”—drew a mixed response, Ms. Cowan has been at the forefront of the movement toward healthier choices for some time.

This corresponds to a trend that is sweeping the industry, according to the website www.restaurant.org.

Veggie-forward and plant-based protein are among the top food trends in 2019, the website reports. After years of being relegated as side dishes or veggie entrees, they are now commanding the center of the plate.

Why are carrots, rutabagas and radishes suddenly sexy? Because chefs like Ms. Cowan have found techniques that draw out these vegetables’ rich and nuanced flavors.

In weighing in on the subject, Ms. Cowan of UXLocale, Steve Londregn of Chuck’s Steak House in Auburn, Jay Hunter of Hunter’s Grille & Tap at the Grafton Inn in Grafton, Tom Little of Galliford’s Restaurant and Tavern at Southwick’s Zoo in Mendon and Dan Gonya of the Table 3 Restaurant Group in Sturbridge offered different takes.

Mr. Londregan of Chuck’s said, “our Impossible Burger was the original plant-based option. We jumped right on board and people were literally driving thirty miles for it. The word spread through the vegetarian community on social media very quickly. But once [suppliers] started selling to the fast food national chains they were unable to keep up with the demand and we had to switch to the Beyond Burger which is virtually the same thing. Our customers like it equally as well.”

 As plant-based items make their way onto more local restaurant menus, beef, including steak tips and Beef Wellington, remains a popular choice of patrons of Hunter’s Grille & Tap in Grafton.

Mr. Hunter said he has not received “any requests for plant-based proteins” at Hunter’s Grille & Tap. “But we do offer vegan and gluten-free menu options,” he said. “Our crowd likes the beef! Marinated and grilled steak tips are very popular. We also do some great specials weekly. Beef Wellington has killed it in the past!”

Mr. Gonya said that at Table 3 “we always make sure there are a couple of options for vegetarians or vegans. Cedar Street Grille is a bit more foodie focused so it gets a small amount more attention there.”

Mr. Little, director of food & beverage operations at Southwick’s Zoo and general manager and executive chef at Galliford’s Restaurant and Tavern, said “I haven’t added them as options to the menu. I have had both the Beyond Burger as well as the Impossible Burger in house for specials and have run them to mixed results. I have been finding that people are less interested in those items because it actually is almost too real and they don’t like the idea of eating something that tastes so close to items that they have chosen not to eat. I have actually read articles where people are turned off by the fact that they bleed. I do keep one of the options in house though and also keep regular veggie burgers available if someone wants them.”

Vegetable-based fare is a hot ticket at UXLocale, Ms. Cowan said.

“These,” she said, in mentioning some patron favorites, “are regular menu items, and every season I feature weekly specials—fruit and vegetable alike that are not only appetizers but entrees and pizzas! I have been running stuffed jester squash from Foppema’s Farm for the past several weeks.

Some of UXLocale’s other plant-based specialties include:

Mixed greens

Tomatoes, olives, banana pepper rings and red onion tossed in house dressing (EVOO) with vinegar, oregano, salt and pepper.

Curried cashew pear and grape

Mixed greens toasted: curried cashews tossed with a little coconut sugar, curry and sea salt, pears, grapes and bacon with house-made honey Dijon vinaigrette.

Crater taters

Parboiled ten lightly fried Yukon gold potatoes, black truffle salt and American grana cheese.

Roasted cauliflower steak

Cross-section(s) cauliflower brushed with seasonal onions, slowly roasted and served with house-made hummus.

Crispy artichoke hearts

Based with EVOO, roasted until crispy, served with house-made hummus.

Whipped feta and roasted cherry tomatoes

Feta whipped with a little EVOO and fresh-cracked black pepper, topped with roasted tomatoes, served with house-made pita bread.

Loaded hummus

With Kalamata and Sicilian olives, cucumbers, feta and tomatoes and house-made pita bread.

Evidence suggests that plant-based food alternatives are catching on across the U.S.

Sodexo, for instance, recently came through with two hundred plant-based dishes for its university, health-care and corporate clients. Also, a Nielsen global survey revealed that 39% of American consumers are working to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diets. These trends are bound to bump up the number of people in the nation who consider themselves vegetarians (5%) or vegans (3%)—figures generated by a 2018 Gallup poll.

As for the other 92%, “you have to make it crave-worthy,” Sodexo USA’s Rob Morasco says.

Contact Rod Lee at [email protected] or 774-232-2999.