The New Stealth Vegetarian Restaurant

Pizza at Ubuntu

The New Stealth Vegetarian Restaurant

Meatless eateries strive to be crossover hits

By Lessley Anderson

When Sarma Melngailis and her former partner set out to open a raw, vegan restaurant in New York City’s Gramercy Park neighborhood, they knew they wanted the word wine in the name. They called it Pure Food and Wine, to broadcast that this was not a “crunchy granola café,” as Melngailis puts it, but rather a sophisticated, pleasure-centric dining spot.

Courtesy of Pure Food and Wine Inside Pure Food and Wine

No rainbow dream catchers, no liberal activist posters stapled to the walls of the bathroom, no mushy brown rice. Instead, it’s a dark, sexy space with pinkish-red seats and boho-chic staff members who are, for the most part, not vegan. Hiring vegans, Melngailis explains, might produce an atmosphere uncongenial to nonvegans. Sometimes, she says proudly, unsuspecting meat-eaters wander in for a cocktail and wind up staying for colorful, inventive dishes like Lapsang Smoked Portabella Mushroom with Caper Potato Salad.

Call it the stealth vegetarian restaurant. Pure is one of a new breed of meatless places trying to appeal to carnivores by consciously avoiding the stereotypes of what it means to be vegetarian. They don’t use using the words vegan or vegetarian on their menus, signs, or marketing materials (or if they do, the terms are in small print). They offer flavorful, creative dishes in trendy settings. They don’t mix politics with the food. And by positioning themselves as cool restaurants that just happen to serve vegetarian fare, they’re striving to be crossover hits, catering to people who no longer see meatless eating as a hippie lifestyle choice.

Five years ago, Jon Wisniewski, the Milwaukee-based brother of one of CHOW’s food editors, viewed tofu as “Whoa! Not eating that kind of thing.” Now, the hobbyist bodybuilder buys Morningstar Farms breakfast sausages and Boca burgers because “they’re supergood and lean.”

Veg Only, from High to Low

Napa, California’s Ubuntu restaurant offers “vegetable-inspired” dishes (translation: vegetarian) that are nearly as intensely flavored, elaborately plated, and expensive as those of Thomas Keller’s Per Se. A tiny cast iron pot is filled with creamy, roasted cauliflower,
Leaves and Things salad at Ubuntu Photographs by Chris Rochelle
The open kitchen at Ubuntu Photographs by Chris Rochelle
Ubuntu’s radishes with local chèvre Photographs by Chris Rochelle
Inside Napa’s Ubuntu Photographs by Chris Rochelle
Ubuntu’s vanilla bean “cheesecake” in a jar Photographs by Chris Rochelle

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and oxheart carrots are roasted and sliced like prime rib. In what some might consider the ultimate California fantasy, a yoga studio is perched in a loft above the dining room. There are wine tasting–yoga class combo deals, and rich-looking people with great bodies wander through the restaurant on their way to and from their practice. (There are loaner pashmina shawls available if you get cold going from class to glass.) It’s a place where you’d take a client for a ritzy business lunch or dinner. But you certainly wouldn’t get paint thrown on you if you showed up in a fur.

The restaurant’s owner, Sandy Lawrence, “wanted to do really creative cuisine that just happened to be vegetarian,” and hired Jeremy Fox and his wife, Deanie, both formerly of the world-class (nonveg) Los Gatos, California, restaurant Manresa, to be chef and and pastry chef, respectively. Jeremy Fox is not a vegetarian. Nor does he do yoga. In February, Ubuntu was lauded by New York Times food critic Frank Bruni as one of the 10 best new restaurants in the country alongside meat-centric places like New Orleans’s Cochon.