The Vegetarian Tasting Menu at HauteDish
On November 2nd, a little bird told us that HauteDish, Chef Landon Schoenefeld’s precocious toddler of a restaurant, would be starting to offer vegetarian prix fixe meals on Sunday evenings (along with a limited a la carte menu of their regular offerings for customers of more bloodthirsty predilections). Though this was a highly unexpected move for a restaurant whose logo is a cheerfully sectioned pig, it is a very welcome expansion of options for vegetarians, for whom the only options on the regular menu had been, up to this point, soup, salads, and the Med Plate appetizer.
When we inquired as to the impetus behind Chef Schoenefeld’s decision, we were told that he was inspired by a recent trip to New York City, where vegetarian tasting menus are apparently the Next Big Thing. A recent article in New York Magazine has already issued the brazen declaration that “vegetables are the new meat.” And it shows in the massive hype that hangs like a Los Angeles fog over Dirt Candy, the all-vegetarian restaurant helmed by Chef Amanda Cohen, whose menu features some of the best and most imaginative manipulations of plant matter in town. And Per Se, that frighteningly well-oiled machine of a restaurant, the steely Yankees to Cohen’s Bad News Bears aesthetic, routinely offers 12 vegetarian courses for the haute price of $275 per person.
Schoenefeld’s prix fixe menu, priced at an unbelievably affordable $30 per person, is at once familiar and perplexing; the result is uncanny, yet gratifying, like hearing an unexpectedly good rendition of a Fleetwood Mac song at a combination barbecue joint / karaoke bar. The crew at HauteDish means to prove that they can cook great vegetarian dishes, and their enthusiasm for the challenge shows. Like Cohen’s menu at Dirt Candy, HauteDish’s prix fixe is designed to showcase specific vegetables and fruits: mushroom, squash, beet, and apple. Generally, the dishes which included multiple treatments of the same ingredient fared better and garnered more obscene adulatory gestures than the others.
First was the mushroom dish. A tiny green flag of crispy fried sage hailed and welcomed us to a single serving of bruschetta topped with a hefty dollop of wild mushroom and cashew pate. It towered over a mushroom broth that tasted like the umami gods were urinating into our mouths. Roasted grapes and dehydrated tomatoes were cheerful spikes of sweetness and tang.
Then there was the “Squash(es)” course, whose ambivalent label betrays both the grammatical and literal confusion presented by the dish. There were not one, not two, but three varieties of squash on our plates. Good old butternut was presented both in a logical swipe of curried puree and in the “seared” gnocchi (here, the searing lies in some semantic trickery; the dumplings themselves aren’t seared, but the dough contains a dose of browned butter). A clump of unadorned spaghetti squash just sort of hangs out on top of the puree, serving its usual role of a principally textural element. On the other end of the plate, a coconut flan smuggled in a serving of acorn squash with a touch of lime. After a bit of picking and tasting, we found that the best way to approach the dish was to gather its elements — puree, spaghetti, flan, peanut, and jalapeno — onto our forks to create a cohesive bite. All of their powers combined to create a well-balanced take on massaman curry: a Magic Eye image revealing itself to us only after we resolved to put in the effort.
An unmarked package followed, wrapped in mandolined roasted beets and topped with a messy bow of microgreens, and we found the contents — kasha, caramelized leeks, cheese, and sour cream — to be of a vaguely Eastern European origin. We breathed a sigh of relief when it was revealed that the cheese was neither chevre nor gorgonzola, the beet’s chronic hangers-on. When it was all over, the streaky red mess on our plates gave us the license to pretend that we had just eaten raw meat.
Dessert, an approximately 2.5-inch x 2.5-inch x 2.5-inch cube of by-the-book spiced apple cake, also required an experimental, methodical approach. Combining the cake with its neighbor across the way, a quenelle of lemongrass sorbet, made for an awkward pairing of flavors. Rather than forcing the elements into some kind of stilted cross-cultural harmony, we found that alternating cake with sorbet turned the dish into a play of contrasts, by turns refreshing and rib-stickingly dense.
Our informal and probably inaccurate survey of the dining room found that very few tables actually ordered the prix fixe, and instead overwhelmingly opted for menu standbys such as the Tater Tot HauteDish and the Flavor Country Burger. It felt subversive, in a quiet way, to have such vegetal riches laid before us in a place that is, on any other day, a temple to meat preparation. This is a menu that even the most avid omnivores would enjoy. You may sense a certain absence in your heart valves at the end of the meal. If that is the case, take two doses of bacon in the morning and carry on. You’ll be fine.