In this new series, the Beet Reporter aims to see whether Miami's tastiest restaurants are prepared to feed vegans with something more than boring garden salads.
There are two ways to make vegan food. Or rather, there are two ways to make food vegan.
One starts with "normal" dishes, subtracting the animal-derived products, and filling in the holes with alternate ingredients. Veggie "burgers," chili made with textured vegetable protein, "mock 'n' schreeze," and seitan "meats" in their endless forms are examples of this phenomenon. And there's nothing wrong with this; it results in vegan foods whose familiar appearances give us comfort and impress non-vegans with how "real" they seem.
But at the same time, you might say it makes vegan cuisine seem like it's desperately trying to mimic its meaty, cheesy cousins --- like it can't stand on its own.
The other approach celebrates the roots of the diet --- fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds --- instead of trying to make vegan foods appear and taste like something else.
Michael Pirolo, chef de cuisine at Scarpetta in the Fountainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach, took this second route to preparing a menu in response my vegan challenge. He gave succulent vegetables the spotlight in a six-course inspirational tasting menu designed to seduce anyone who equates organic with orgasmic.
After nibbling on a corner of fresh bread topped with a sun dried tomato and olive tapenade as a teaser, I was intrigued as our server Heinz brought us the first course of the complimentary meal.
It was a gorgeous salad that looked like it should be shallacked and hung on a museum wall. But then I wouldn't have had the pleasure of eating it.
Each piece was steeped in a different flavor, including a highly acidic pickled stalk of asparagus, smoky, crunchy, and delicate fried scallion rings, sweet tomato, tender fingerling potato halves, and unadulterated radish shavings. It was lightly coated in a 25-year-old gourmet wine vinegar from a Canadian company called Minus 8, after the temperature at which they often harvest their grapes.
The second course was a sparse plate that allowed me to focus on the unique flavor of each earthly gem on it.
Small roasted artichoke pieces and a sweet braised endive were cooked to release powerful natural flavors of the impeccably fresh vegetables. A fat tripolini onion, cooked tender and glazed with preserved truffle oil, was like a piece of vegan candy. A swirl of zucchini reduction slicked the plate underneath the dainty roasted, pickled beets and toasted hazelnuts.
Taste plate number three looked like a vegetable Stonehenge. Meaty slices of porcini mushroom, fried artichoke leaves, and tiny broccoli florets were accented with a tangy meyer lemon dressing and danced around a pool of silky smooth cauliflower puree, whipped up with a feather light oil. The taste and texture combination was heavenly.
The fourth course had a sturdy, hearty appearance in contrast to the wispy taste plates that preceded it. It was an eggplant and tomato casserole, dusted with pine nuts, plump golden raisins, and escarole florets.
The eggplant was tender and rolled in with just the right amount of garlic, but the raisins were not enough to balance the acid of the tomatoes. By the end of the dish (and I did eat it all --- I have a complex about wasting precious vegetables) I had an acrid taste at the back of my mouth.
The fifth course, though, helped to balance out that acidic flavor. It was a small serving of what I came to think of as raw vegan grits: plump, sweet, uncooked corn kernels in a bath of corn puree, accompanied by chanterelle mushrooms in a delicious, weightless chili oil, with haricot vert and micro greens.
And if course number five wasn't sweet enough, the fresh, homemade sorbets certainly were. Coconut, passion fruit, and mixed berry ices sat atop tiny chunks of sweet pineapple.
It's true: every one of the five restaurants to whom I've issued my vegan challenge so far has responded with a sorbet-based dessert. Nonetheless, I have a weakness for a good coconut sorbet that renders me incapable of complaint. And this was a very, very good coconut sorbet. Nutty, creamy, sweet, and smooth. Watching me eat it, my friend suggested I get a private room.
This flavor-rich vegan tasting menu is not part of Scarpetta's regular offerings, but could be prepared (with some variation --- it is "inspirational") for any table that makes the request in advance with its reservations for a price of $60 per person. Chef Michael also said that any of the featured taste plates could be made in a larger portion for $16, if one would rather not go the tasting route. He emphasized that all ingredients are in-house at all times and that he's happy to create inspired vegan meals with fresh seasonal produce, when given a reasonable heads up.
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As part of their standard menu, the restaurant already offers ten vegetarian options --- including the vegan rosemary braised lentils and caramelized fennel --- that hover around $16 per plate.
It should be noted that in addition to bringing my vegan demands to Scarpetta, I also brought a guest who has allergies to gluten, corn, soy, and dairy. Scarpetta's diplomatic staff accommodated her without a flinch, and Chef Michael whipped up six clean and (she says) delicious plates that included some of the best seafood she she's ever had. All in all, Scarpetta definitely rose to my challenge, and then some.
Do you have a restaurant you'd like to see rise to the vegan challenge? Send your suggestions to the Beet Reporter.