Dine: Meat-free dining in Pittsburgh getting easier and more adventurous

Restaurants sauce up late-season vegetables with technique and style

Winter in Pittsburgh isn't an ideal time to be vegetarian, but for the committed, it's not impossible. So I learned a few weeks ago when I tried to abstain from eating red meat, chicken, fish or pork for a mere seven days.

I failed.

I started the first night by downing a Wellfleet oyster, since I could not pass the opportunity to sip its salty liquor. Next I logged in two meat-free days, with a smattering of collards and Brussels sprouts, too much pasta and entirely too many cheeses.

By Wednesday I was as cranky as a smoker craving a fix and defected to a serving of lamb bolognese and a slice of seafood pizza. This was followed by a meatless stretch during which I blamed lack of protein for writer's block, lack of sleep and an inability to follow directions offered by my GPS.

By Friday, I aborted my mission with a fish fry at Teutonia Mannerchor in Deutschtown.

"You're doing it wrong," a colleague informed me. A vegetarian for 11 years until bacon got the best of her, she assembled winter meals with farro and chickpeas, beets and leafy greens.

Though I clearly don't have the willpower yet to discard my carnivorous habits, I learned during this brief foray that Pittsburgh chefs have been tending to vegetables. Whether they're pickling radishes, caramelizing onions, making leek confit or glorifying produce using Modernist techniques, restaurants are finding ways to seduce diners' appetites with vegetables, even at the end of a long winter.

This is true outside of vegetarian meccas such as Eden in Shadyside and The Zenith on the South Side.

"There is a demand for this type of dining," said chef Kevin Sousa, chef/owner at Salt of the Earth in Garfield and other restaurants. "Pittsburgh does not yet have enough of it."

Mr. Sousa was bold to start his vegetarian table during the bleak, mid-March stretch in the newly built-out space at Harvard & Highland, above his Union Pig & Chicken in East Liberty.

"I made the best vegetarian meal I've ever done," he said of his inaugural event. Once a month, Mr. Sousa offers two seatings for his five-course tasting menu with drink pairings for $75 per person.

He finds creating a vegetarian tasting menu more challenging than one that incorporates meat.

He cited the traditional tasting menu escalation from vegetables to fish, to meat-focused "larger entree courses," noting his reticence to add carbohydrates or increase portion size "to make people feel like they're getting their money's worth."

"When it comes to vegetables, the progression can go many ways," he said. His first dinner involved a salad followed by mock sushi, soup and pasta.

Mr. Sousa is looking forward to the second vegetarian table night on April 15. "Peas, fava beans, ramps, nettles, miner's lettuce, greens and herbs: there will be so much to work with," he said, acknowledging this extended cold snap is delaying the growing season.

Ramps are on his radar, as they signal the beginning of spring foraging. "Maybe Cavan and his brother will find a couple of morels," he said, citing Cavan and Tom Patterson, who run Wild Purveyors in Upper Lawrenceville.

Kaya in the Strip is a pioneer of the vegetarian tasting menu, offering a monthly, mid-week celebration. This four-course affair is economically priced at $39 per person before wine or beer pairings.

Kaya executive chef Ben Sloan said he "roasts vegetables hard to bring out earthiness that's similar to meat." Red wine reductions and Caribbean seasonings fold in bold flavors, which makes for a more satisfying meal for late season produce.

It's not just the challenge of tubers and leafy greens that engages chefs. The environmental toll of raising livestock has also shaped chefs' menus. So does the price of sustainable meat.

"Even when it's raised in sustainable ways, it's not the most sustainable product," said Sonja Finn, chef/owner of the stylish Dinette in East Liberty.

Ms. Finn's reference has been explained by luminaries such as Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and the forthcoming "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation."

Costs beyond how an animal is raised, what it had eaten and whether it was pumped full of antibiotics "have been shifted -- to the taxpayer in the form of crop subsidies, to the farm worker in the form of health problems and to the environment in the form of water and air pollution," Mr. Pollan wrote in response to readers' questions in The New York Times Magazine in October 2011.

Food figures such as Mark Bittman have also cut back on meat consumption by eating vegan all day before 6 p.m., which he credits for his losing 30 pounds.

Most recently, the food editor for The Washington Post, Joe Yonan, announced he became vegetarian for personal reasons after taking a year off to homestead in Maine and write his second book, "Eat Your Vegetables."

Back at Dinette, the menu is rife with items to please a vegetarian, such as grilled hakurei turnips and radish with Parmigiano Reggiano, or new potato salad with haricots verts, shaved egg, capers, dill and creme fraiche.

Ms. Finn sauces up chaste vegetables by pairing them with luxurious ingredients and detailing.

She fills shishito peppers with tangy goat cheese and fried almonds, then drizzles them with the finest of olive oils.

"There's nothing on them that's bad for you. And extra fat tastes rich," she said. Olive oil, nuts and cheese help diners feel satiated and makes for a less austere presentation.

Over at E² in Highland Park, chef/owner Kate Romane displays the menu on a chalkboard list divided into meats, cheeses and vegetables.

She is passionate about grazing. "I love small eats: roasted peppers, roasted carrots, a little cheese and a little bread."

For a first course, diners stack briny radishes and Meyer lemons on house-made focaccia and layer roasted turnips with pecorino as a salty and sweet pair.

Among vegetarian dishes she serves ravioli with ricotta dressed with baby greens, wild mushroom arancini or beet and arugula carpaccio.

When making reservations, ask how a restaurant will accommodate a vegetarian's request, even at a meat-centric place such as Cure in upper Lawrenceville. The results can be surprising, such as one evening when chef Justin Severino made a blood orange granita, a second course of beets with black garlic and bergamot followed by a rich risotto with crispy wild mushrooms.

Some chefs such as Ms. Finn are realizing they're serving less meat because they don't want diners to take it for granted.

"My philosophy when I'm writing the menu," she said, "is that meat is a special treat."

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.


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