Like many meat-and-potato-lovers of the old school, I expected the mania for boutique $25 carrots to have mercifully died away by now. If anything, however, the great veggie craze that has been sweeping through the city’s kitchens the past couple of years actually appears to be gathering steam. Until Jean-Georges Vongerichten opens his long-awaited raw-food, 100 percent vegetable-based restaurant project in the old Le Pain Quotidien space behind ABC Carpet & Home sometime in 2015, the latest place in the vicinity of lower Park Avenue for a healthful fix of grilled beets or baby-kale salad is Little Beet Table, where the well-traveled, slimmed-down chef, Franklin Becker, produces all sorts of gluten-free goodies, including platters of beets with pumpkin seeds and spindly carrots scattered with pistachios, excellent mushroom flatbreads topped with layers of mozzarella and ricotta, and a bizarrely tasty risotto folded with quinoa instead of the usual glutinous mountains of rice.
The numerous beefy delights on the menu of John Fraser’s posh new East Village restaurant, Narcissa, in the Standard Hotel, include a decent big-city rendition of roasted baby chicken and what is the fattiest, most tender example of rib-eye steak your humble critic has had the pleasure of tasting in the past year or so. But the dish that even my fatso, protein-addled friends can’t stop talking about is Fraser’s ingenious carrots Wellington, which, it pains me to admit, is much more reasonably priced than the sodden, filet-stuffed Victorian version; much better for you; and, thanks to the buttery, just-baked pastry crust, and a lemony drizzle of gremolata, quite possibly more delicious.
“Five years ago, they would have called this restaurant ‘Little Pork,’ ” commented one of the wags at my table as we examined the aggressively seasonal, veggie-centric menu at Andrew Carmellini’s fine new Tribeca establishment, Little Park, which opened with a conspicuous lack of fanfare in November off the lobby of a Tribeca hotel called the Smyth. There was a time when Carmellini devoted his considerable energies to the creation of pork delicacies of every kind, but with the Age of Bacon slowly being overturned by armies of vegans and root foragers, he now cooks up plump little ravioli stuffed with kale, an extravagantly rich grape-colored risotto flavored with beets, and a whole avalanche of seasonal-vegetable recipes, which are gathered under the “Autumn Vegetables” section of the menu. Almost everything I sampled on my last visit was exceptional, especially the beetroot tartare (with smoked trout roe) and the crispy Brussels sprouts (on a scrim of smoked-parsnip purée), and if you’re pining for a taste of traditional beefy goodness, ask quietly for the double cheeseburger, which is served in the elegant little lobby bar next door.
My baker friends can’t stop yammering about the signature loaves of einkorn-buckwheat bread that accompany the seven-course “vegetable forward” tasting menu at the former pop-up turned tasting bar Semilla in Williamsburg, but if you wish to experience the new haute-veggie doctrine in its most rarefied Brooklyn form, I suggest you add your name to the three-month waiting list of people clamoring to get into Elise Kornack and Anna Hieronimus’s modest 12-seat tasting atelier, Take Root, which is open three nights a week, for one seating only, in the bottom of a dimly lit townhouse space in Carroll Gardens. Kornack, who has labored at Aquavit, among other grand Manhattan kitchens, is perfectly at home in the fatty, umami-rich world of proteins (the immaculately roasted lamb belly I tasted was a thing of beauty), but she has a genius for shuffling together the produce from her local Greenmarket in all sorts of unexpected ways. On a recent visit, the wintry, root-vegetable-centric tasting menu included stacks of crinkly sweet-potato crisps touched with malt vinegar (you dip them in a potato purée topped with trout roe), delicately minty soups dappled with tiny, vividly orange balls of butternut squash, and segments of soft cabbage dressed with cowpeas cooked in a spoonful or two of densely flavored lobster stock. The dish that caused the grizzled old gourmands at my table to put down their forks in wonder, however, was a helping of dark, softly gnarled sunchokes, which Kornack cooks to a kind of sweetbread tenderness, then plates over a freshly whipped chestnut purée with disks of shaved truffles and the faintest exotic hint of eucalyptus.