Thursday, August 16, 2007

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean L.A. isn't out to get vegetarians

Up until recently I would have staunchly defended L.A. as one of the most vegetarian-friendly cities on the planet. Sure, it would have finished slightly below your Berkeleys or your New Delhis, but it would have been right up there. I might even have gone so far to say that vegetarians are finally starting to hold some of the high cards in the giant Texas Hold'Em game of the foodie culture.

Well, not so much anymore. If we had, say, pocket jacks a few years ago, right now we're down to maybe a queen-three. Meanwhile, our carnivorous brethren are getting Ace-King after Ace-King.

What's the deal? And why did I feel the need to keep that poker metaphor going for so long? I really don't know the answer to either of these questions. I just know that it feels to me like vegetarians are slowly being shown the door by the gourmet community. Maybe they've figured out that they can still pack the house without catering to us, or maybe meatless is no longer chic in their circle. Whatever the reason, it sucks.

Let's get specific. Providence and Craft. Two of the hippest, hottest, hardest-to-get-into restaurants in L.A. right now; both opened within the past year or so. Both of them also feature exactly zero vegetarian dishes. Not a single one. Not even a token angel hair pasta with diced tomato and basil (the fancy restaurateur's equivalent to the undercooked Gardenburger). Neither of these places is a steakhouse or sushi bar; they're both in the category of New American cuisine, and from my perspective the New America has a reasonable number of deep-pocketed vegetarians, but I guess the chefs disagree. Fraiche, not quite as scene-y but nonetheless a cornerstone of the Culver City Gentrification Project, squeaks by with one pasta dish (ravioli with English pea and mint). Ketchup, the fun new place for us kids to drop a ton of dough, has every kind of fancy-ass burger except the veggie kind. But perhaps the greatest insult comes from Abode, the hot new "green" restaurant that trumpets its devotion to "sustainable artisanal cuisine" but offers only a single vegetarian appetizer (eggplant chorizo) and no entrees. Am I missing something, Abode? You could grow all the ingredients to make a kick-ass veggie dish on my balcony; isn't that slightly more sustainable than your cured meats and foie gras and oysters?

I like to think that I don't have unreasonable expectations. Sure, it would be nice to see a meatless establishment attract the same kind of scene and press as Cut or Katsuya, but I'm enough of a pragmatist to understand that you need a certain amount of meat and fish to bring in the masses. What I don't understand is why it's too much trouble for someone who calls him or herself a world-class chef to come up with just one or two veggie dishes that are as mindblowingly original and delicious as the rest of the omnivorous stuff on the menu.

Last fall Alexis and I had an awesome dinner at Saddle Peak Lodge. Not a ton of choices for us, obviously, but we still had excellent salads and great pasta dishes. Now, when a place with deer heads and antique rifles on the walls caters to vegetarians better than the latest and greatest place on Melrose, I think it's fair to say that something's a little amiss.