Vegetables take a starring role on local menus
No longer just for the health conscious, ethical eaters or those with dietary restrictions, these fresh, exciting, vegetable-forward dishes are becoming stars on local menus.
The days of tacking a single obligatory vegetarian or vegan dish to a menu are coming to an end. Today, Madison is seeing a range of veg-focused offerings, from vegetarian sushi rolls to entirely plant-based menus. No longer just for the health conscious, ethical eaters or those with dietary restrictions, these fresh, exciting, vegetable-forward dishes are becoming stars on local menus.
After years of serving lamb burgers and pork belly tacos, Jonathan Reske will finally be handing diners a menu lined with foods he can fully enjoy himself.
Reske, who owns Jardin with business partner Armando Magaña, has been vegan for 17 years. After Jardin closed for two years during COVID-19, they seized the opportunity to reopen the East Washington Avenue restaurant with an entirely plant-based concept.
“Friends of Robinia have been curiously bugging [me] about the menu, and people who used to love eating at Jardin 2.0 kind of scoff when I’ve talked about us going vegan or plant-based fully for the concept,” Magaña says. Once Magaña talks to them about the new menu, though, he gets responses like, “Oh, this sounds great. I have no qualms eating here. I’m not going to miss the steak or lamb.”
To help make their idea a reality, Reske and Magaña brought on Juan David Umaña as partner and executive chef to create the menu and manage the kitchen at Jardin. Umaña brings years of experience in plant-based cuisine running the vegan food truck Vengan Pa’Ka as well as time spent working at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ farm-to-table restaurant in California.
“This project to me just seems like such an amazing and impactful thing to happen here in the Madison scene — to have a fully plant-based restaurant,” says Umaña. “My goal, my wish, for plant-based cuisine is to bring it to that next level.”
Together, their hope is that plant-based eaters or those with food allergies — like Magaña, who is lactose intolerant — won’t feel like they have to look ahead to ensure there will be something on the menu they can eat. The team wants to meet diners’ needs and exceed their expectations with what is served on every plate and poured in every glass.
“We’re not doing this to reinvent the wheel,” Reske says. “We’re not trying to reset the vegan high-end landscape. I think it’s nice to have something where you know that 100% of what you have to look at is going to be completely plant-based.”
Over the years, plant-based dining has increased in popularity. According to Nielsen statistics, in the U.S., meat and dairy alternatives are increasingly in demand, and many people are opting to be “flexitarians” — meaning they still eat animal products, but significantly less often.
Plant-based menus like Jardin’s, while slightly more common in the Madison culinary scene now, were rare nearly 20 years ago when Reske became vegan. “Most menus were like … well … we have a side salad and french fries,” recalls Reske. He remembers the days when certain chefs not only disliked the idea of offering vegetarian options but were vehemently against it.
“It’s crazy how that’s come around, and you look at some of these menus and the transformation overall, even in the last five years,” Reske says.
While the days of the obligatory vegetarian dish are not entirely a thing of the past, over the years Madison-area restaurants began to embrace the plethora of greens and roots growing all around them. Graze, Himal Chuli, Bandung Indonesian Cuisine, Tavernakaya, Forage Kitchen, Alchemy, Dhaba Indian Bistro, Everly and Morris Ramen, among many, many others, have multiple plant-based selections.
Farm-to-table restaurants became commonplace, offering seasonal dishes featuring asparagus in the spring and heirloom tomatoes in the peak of summer. Today, restaurants of all styles and cuisines are serving balanced menus equally focused on protein and produce. Even more high-end restaurants like Heritage Tavern, L’Etoile and Fairchild, where meat is a larger focus, have interesting vegetarian options, and they’re constantly innovating to focus on seasonality. Vegetarians and omnivores alike often choose vegetable dishes because they are the most appealing options on the menu.
Magaña and Reske saw this shift and bet that Madison was ready for a higher-end plant-based restaurant. They are finding, along with many other Madison chefs and restaurateurs, that vegetables are not just for vegetarians anymore.
When owner and chef Sean Pharr opened Mint Mark in 2018, his intent was to offer a vegetable-forward menu, taking advantage of the bounty growing on Wisconsin farms. “Madison is located with some of the greatest farms surrounding it [and] some of the greatest farmers, so the idea was to be able to highlight what’s happening around us,” he says.
Influenced by his early years in the kitchen, Pharr’s ever-rotating menu combines protein and produce. As an intern at Harvest under Chef Jeffrey Orr, he began to develop an appreciation for vegetables — and the people growing them.
“[Orr] was the first chef to take me to the farmers’ market and show me how important it was to have a relationship with the people who provided the food to you,” says Pharr. Orr would tell him, “I’m not supporting them. They are supporting me,” a sentiment Pharr has carried with him through his more than 20-year culinary career.
Pharr’s philosophy is to use ingredients when they are in season and when they feel “special,” though he has made an exception for one popular dish — a roasted-then-fried cauliflower coated in bagna càuda (an Italian garlic and anchovy mixture), which he keeps on the menu year-round.
Outside of the cauliflower mainstay, Mint Mark’s menu reflects the best of what’s growing in the Midwest, and Pharr attributes this and much of his restaurant’s success to Wisconsin farmers — in particular, Scott Williams of Garden To Be.
“Scott is one of the most important farmers in my career,” Pharr says. “He’s responsible for a moment in my upbringing as a cook that changed my life.”
While serving as a line cook at the Blue Marlin, Williams once ran into the kitchen and handed Pharr a brown bag of corn. When Pharr thanked him and said he would cook the ears for the staff later in the day, Williams insisted he take a bite of the raw kernels right away. “It was so sweet and juicy, and I didn’t know you could eat raw corn. I was 21, 22 at the time and had no idea,” says Pharr.
This moment opened Pharr’s eyes to the possibilities of vegetables and the wealth of knowledge and experience farmers had to offer.
Growing Deep-Rooted Connections to Farms
When Williams started Garden To Be more than 20 years ago, not many local vegetable farms were growing specifically for restaurants, let alone taking orders and making deliveries for them. These days, while he still grows some produce at his farm in Mount Horeb, Williams is focused on connecting farmers and chefs to get more local vegetables on dinner plates.
Williams aggregates fresh produce from nearly 30 Wisconsin farms and distributes to a list of more than 75 restaurants and businesses. “I kept thinking, we don’t all have to be doing all the work all of the time,” Williams says.
He is helping solve a problem many farmers face: Lacking capacity to grow high-quality produce while still meeting the individual needs of dozens of chefs and business owners. By acting as an intermediary, Williams is giving restaurants access to a larger variety of produce through a singular contact, something Pharr at Mint Mark relies on.
“I’m super thankful for what his role is now, because he really makes all these farms accessible,” says Pharr. “Scott is an incredibly special person for this community.”
Relationships like Williams and Pharr’s have led to a cycle where farmers influence what shows up on plates and chefs influence what pops up in fields. Whether it is a quick conversation while on delivery or during a winter meeting hovered over seed catalogs, Williams loves talking with chefs about what can be grown on area farms and enjoys working with them to find just the right color carrot or best size of turnip.
In return, chefs like Pharr try their best to adjust menus and offer specials when farmers are facing vegetable booms and busts. An unusually hot May can cause entire crops of spinach to wilt, or a late-fall warm spell can trigger a surplus of salad greens.
Farming and restaurant management are not for the faint of heart, but together, farmers and chefs are increasingly finding ways to bring more fresh and seasonal produce to the forefront of Madison’s culinary scene.
“We live in just an amazing place where there is already so much support for local agriculture,” Williams says. “I don’t know where else there is that has what we have here. Madison is pretty amazing.”
Vegetables Become the Stars of New Shows
While Japanese cuisine lends itself beautifully to highlighting vegetables, fish is typically what comes to mind when considering sushi. Increasingly, though, more vegetarian and vegan options are appearing on the menu at RED — from beet poke to grilled zucchini rolls — and they don’t just hold their own against the meat and fish dishes. They stand out.
Co-owner Tanya Zhykharevich says RED has always prioritized making vegetarian and vegan options, but it has expanded due to demand. She says the culinary team at RED works with local purveyors and incorporates seasonal flavors and produce to the menu. “The creativity that goes into creating these vegetable-focused dishes and sushi rolls make them a popular choice for all guests,” says Zhykharevich.
RED’s menu changes every three months. A recent seasonal roll called “Hass, Queen!” combines asparagus and cauliflower inside the roll and is topped with zucchini, avocado-tofu guacamole, masago togarashi crackers and alfalfa sprouts. In addition to the seasonal options which have included jackfruit carnitas and shiitake bacon, RED consistently offers a list of vegan and vegetarian rolls using ingredients like shiitake mushrooms, bok choy, squash, cucumber, pickled radish and zucchini.
“Our chefs are very creative with flavors and their creativity shines with our vegetarian sushi,” Zhykharevich says.
Local farmers are also collaborating with chefs to bring new vegetables to plates, and in novel ways. In recent years, heatless habanero peppers, called habanadas, made their appearance on area menus, including R
ED’s; and cauliflower, formerly considered “boring” in the vegetable world, is finally getting its time in the kitchen.
The rise in vegetable-focused dishes and entirely plant-based menus contributes to a trend many chefs don’t see fading any time soon. Specialty businesses like Level 5 Donuts, smoothie bowl restaurant BeneBlends, all-vegan burger spot Sookie’s Veggie Burgers and catering company JustVeggiez have launched within the past five years, introducing new vegan options. Bar Corallini, Migrants Madison, Ian’s Pizza, and Daisy Cafe and Cupcakery also have dedicated vegan menus.
“There are times [at Mint Mark] where the menu has gone completely vegetarian without me even noticing,” Pharr says. “[With] constantly changing dishes and working with what’s in season, once in a while it happens … I take pride in that.”
While this could pose a challenge to those who prefer protein-heavy options, it also offers an opportunity. Diners can explore greater nuance in flavors and textures beyond what meat can provide, and they have a chance to better understand what it means to eat seasonally and support local farmers.
“I’ve been cooking 21 years now … and the idea of having a vegetarian dish because, you know, ‘Those people are out there,’ it’s not even a thought anymore,” Pharr says. “Aside from the incredible amount of food allergies and dietary restrictions that have surfaced in the last five years, the vegetarian thing now is just, like, this is how you cook.”
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