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Six Rochester restaurants that do vegetables right 

click to enlarge The Durand Niçoise salad from The GateHouse isn't a vegetarian dish, but puts vegetables front and center. - PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • The Durand Niçoise salad from The GateHouse isn't a vegetarian dish, but puts vegetables front and center.
Rochester restaurants, from the upscale to the mom ‘n’ pop, have a vegetable  problem. Veggies may be on the menu, but they’re often a wilted, overcooked, unoriginal afterthought. I’m hard-pressed to find a tempting veggie item on most menus. I hopefully scan the weak salad options, then turn to the deep-fried sides in desperation, and end up ordering some meaty main with fries. Again.

Even the handful of dedicated vegetarian or vegan spots focus a lot of attention on meat substitutes, trying to replicate a burger or pulled pork for those who don’t want to eat something that had parents, but kinda, sorta (definitely) want it to taste like it did. I’m not knocking anyone else’s choices, but I don’t want tempeh.

This mission of mine isn’t about avoiding or replacing meat, but about finding the dishes where the vegetables shine. I’m not a vegetarian, but I really love vegetables and other fruits of the earth: beans, greens, roots, squashes, sprouts, mushrooms, and pods. Stew ’em, toss ’em, roast ’em, marinate ’em, sautee ’em, pickle ’em . . . you get the picture.

I actually prefer veggies to be the stars of my meals, but unless I make a concerted effort to prepare a vegetable-centric dish myself (which doesn’t happen often enough), I continuously fall into the meat, starch, and grease trap.

Restaurant Good Luck’s chef and co-owner, Dan Martello, tells me it’s not difficult to make a delicious vegetable-based meal.

“I think sometimes the best vegetable dishes are the most simple dishes,” he says. “As long as you're getting a quality product, you don't really need to do much to it. People shouldn't be afraid of vegetables. They're delicious and they shouldn't be intimidating, because they're technically pretty easy to cook.”

When cooking for yourself, he says, you can get by with roasting or sautéing most veggies with a little oil, salt, and pepper. There’s a lot of flavor to unlock in those innocuous-looking stems and sprouts.

In the restaurant scene, Martello says he’s seeing more demand for vegetable-based dishes from health- and environmentally-conscious clients, which further incentivizes eateries to put better vegetable dishes on their menus.

click to enlarge The Vegan Spring Vegetables and Grains dish at Lento. - PHOTO BY REBECCA RAFFERTY
  • PHOTO BY REBECCA RAFFERTY
  • The Vegan Spring Vegetables and Grains dish at Lento.
“I think meat is never gonna go away, but I think vegetables are definitely going to be the center of the plate,” he says. “The meat, I think, will be kind of the accoutrement as opposed to the main dish.”

With a lot of hunting and a little help, I’ve found several local restaurant menus whose offerings won’t have you turning to that meaty main with fries. Again. These aren’t boring salads or mushy hummus wraps, either. They’re perfect vegetable dishes that’ll have you coming back. Some are staples, but others are seasonal and will rotate off the menu before long, so check them out soon!

The I-just-want-something-light Salad: Lento’s Roasted Red & Gold Beet Salad ($9, vegetarian)

Ingredients: beets, arugula and baby Tuscan kale, pistachio crumble, sunflower seeds, feta, honey ginger vinaigrette

I can’t rave enough about this salad. The beets are tender and their mildly earthy flavor is well-balanced with the bright and silky, lightly sweet vinaigrette, tangy cheese, and the saltiness of the sunflower seeds and pistachios. Everything, from the greens to the beets and toppings, is smaller than bite-sized and evenly distributed, so you get the perfect bite every time you lift your fork. Filling, without making you feel uncomfortably full.

The Grain & Green: Branca’s Charred Broccolini Salad ($12, vegetarian)

Ingredients: broccolini, quinoa, farro, chickpeas, spiced almonds, ricotta salata, garlic scape vinaigrette

A salad that proves it doesn’t need an actual bed of greens as a base to be healthy and filling. This one is slightly smoky and salty, and filled with protein, pleasingly-textured grains, and delicious spice and herb notes.

The Hearty Two-mealer: The GateHouse’s Durand Niçoise salad ($17)

Ingredients: greens, olives, green beans, roasted potatoes, egg, grilled ahi tuna, basil vinaigrette

The GateHouse has several great salads named for local landmarks. The Highland Park has berries and edible flowers, and the Cobb’s Hill is, you guessed it, a take on a Cobb salad. But the Durand Niçoise stands out as a meal-in-itself. Loaded with beautifully prepared veggies, a hard-boiled egg, strips of seared ahi tuna, and accented with the saltiness of olives and an herby-bright dressing, this is a good example of a non-vegetarian dish that centers the vegetables.

The Could-be-dessert: Acorn Squash at The Vesper ($12, vegetarian)

Ingredients: acorn squash, burrata, hazelnuts, honey, balsamic

People who shirk squash are missing out. Squashes require little in the way of actual preparation, and roasting them brings out loads of unexpected flavors, including, in the case of acorn squash, an earthy sweetness. And they’re so versatile! You can top the squash with spiced and savory ingredients or, in the case of Vesper’s version, play up the sweetness. The blend of silky burrata, crunchy hazelnuts, honey, and tangy balsamic vinegar here is heavenly.

click to enlarge The Red Lentils from Restaurant Good Luck balances sweet with a little heat. - PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • The Red Lentils from Restaurant Good Luck balances sweet with a little heat.
The Supreme Comfort Food: Red Lentils at Restaurant Good Luck ($13, vegan)

Ingredients: red lentils, curried sweet potato, agave, swiss chard, flat bread

Good Luck has a family-style menu, which means you’re supposed to order a few menu items to share with your partner or party. But good luck not bogarting the whole platter of red lentils when it comes to your table. The balance of subtle heat with delicate sweet will have you spooning up the mushy mixture and sopping up every last drop with the wedges of soft pita bread on the side. The portion is indeed shareable, but you won’t mind ordering it for one.

The Steak Replacer: The Cub Room’s King Trumpet entree ($20, vegetarian)

Ingredients: trumpet mushroom, bok choy, sweet peas, sugar snaps, broccoli rabe, white asparagus, black garlic, lemon

It’s been great to see area restaurants shift away from the overuse of portabellas as the go-to mushroom. ’Bellas have a tendency to overpower a dish, and I prefer the more subtle but still flavorful shiitakes, maitakes, oysters, and trumpets. Cooked beautifully so it’s neither rubbery nor slimy, the tender trumpet in this lemon-peppery dish is paired nicely with a variety of crisp, fresh veggies.

Rebecca Rafferty is CITY's life editor. She can be reached at rrafferty@rochester-citynews.com.
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