I recently rediscovered my love for peas. It happened by accident, actually, amid a crisis of faith.
Nine months ago, while dining at a local restaurant chain that prides itself on sourcing fine ingredients, I ordered the veggie plate. Excited by the promise of some of the best available produce, I was shocked by what was served to me: forlorn, over-salted asparagus; underseasoned and undercooked yellow squash; the only sign of hope on the plate, a few slices of undisturbed tomato. "I'm horrified at what restaurants perpetuate on this city's vegetables!" I said to my friends, lamenting the vegetables' plight. The worst part, though, was that this had happened before in Atlanta.
Nearly five years as a vegetarian has rendered me deeply attuned to the pleasures of fresh, seasonal vegetables. Atlanta has its share of restaurants catering specifically to vegetarians, some of them extraordinary, but the veggie options at omnivorous eateries often left me wanting. I wasn't about to let a few bad experiences make me a nonbeliever, though, so I decided to find out how some of our city's best chefs are approaching the ubiquitous veggie plate.
"Vegetables are alive and it is that life which defines a good vegetable plate," said Restaurant Eugene chef Linton Hopkins in an e-mail. "We must come to find the sexiness in rutabagas and dried beans in our yearly diet." Hopkins, who tests potential hires by having them create veggie plates, added, "vegetables change my perceptions about food more than any other ingredient."
When it comes to veggie plates, there seems to be two basic schools of thought. First, there's the collection of sides approach — a kind of hold-the-meat and three. The second approach functions more as a cohesive dish — an ode to the various complements and contrasts found within a seasonal mix of vegetables.
The pinnacle of the latter, according to CL Food & Drink Editor Besha Rodell, can be found at the National (232 W. Hancock Ave., 706-549-3450) in Athens, Ga., and I tend to agree. Chickpeas, okra, watercress tabbouleh, and pistachios, among other things, come together in a Mediterranean tableau with a Southern sensibility. "The National offers what may be the best vegetable plate I've ever had. ... The variance of flavors and textures makes eating the dish an experience akin to frolicking through an overgrown summer vegetable garden," said Rodell in her 2008 review of the restaurant.
But what of Atlanta's restaurants?
Both Miller Union (999 Brady Ave., 678-733-8550) and Watershed (406 W. Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-378-4900) offer veggie plates as a collection of sides in the traditional Southern style: Green beans, squash, field peas, tomatoes, etc., each find its way to the plate. At both places, thick red tomato slices are left to their sweet, summery devices, dressed simply with a quick crack of black pepper. Field peas receive a light caress of herbed butter, bringing to light the creaminess of the tender, earthy orbs.
But also found at both places is a nod to another part of the farm: the pig part. Miller Union's green beans sagged beneath the weight of too much smoky pork flavor. Watershed's butter beans wallow happily (and tastily) in a cream sauce flecked with bits of ham. While not uncommon, the use of meats and meat stocks in veggie plates seems disingenuous, and, honestly, kind of feels like a cheat. To be fair, both restaurants are re-creating dishes steeped in tradition, and both offer meat-free versions, although you'll have to request them specifically. Personally, I can't help but laugh a little at the irony of having to ask for a vegetarian veggie plate.
Fine collections in both cases, but not what I'd expect from two of the city's best restaurants at the height of summer.
Irony's less of an issue at JCT Kitchen (1198 Howell Mill Road, Suite 18, 404-355-2252), where a conscious effort has been made to craft a dish — to approach the veggie plate as a creative endeavor, layering ingredients, flavors and textures. A bed of buttered potato dumplings forms the foundation, over which is heaped a selection of fresh farm stand veggies. Here, too, vegetarians must make themselves known (the principal sauce involves chicken stock but they're happy to sub white wine or vegetable stock), but the dynamic and hearty dish is worth it.
Restaurant Eugene (2277 Peachtree Road, 404-355-0321) refers to its veggie plate as a tasting of local vegetables. "Tasting" is a wild understatement. At least a half a dozen veggies are piled high into a shallow dish. Picking apart the mound feels like digging for buried treasure: fairy tale eggplants, tempura-fried red onions, chunks of succulent magenta beets. It's a veritable bounty, a testament to the nourishing, filling qualities of well-prepared veggies.
Finally, an unsolicited tip from a reader led me to Rathbun's (112 Krog St., Suite R, 404-524-8280): "For whatever it's worth, Rathbun's also has absolutely the best veggie plate anywhere in Atlanta" "georgec" commented on Rodell's July 1 review of the restaurant.
A quick scan of the menu after arriving showed no such option. When asked, the server revealed that the chef (either Kevin Rathbun or one of the chefs de cuisine) makes the plates to order. "Just let us know if you have any allergies or dislikes," he said. Suffering from neither, I requested the entrée simply be made without any meat products. Comprised of four parts — a sweet and peppery succotash; orzo with caramelized onions; herbed field mushrooms; and an arugula and hearts of palm salad in a lemon vinaigrette — Rathbun's version succeeded on the "collection" side of things with a personalized tasting of various veggies.
After that succotash — in which the freshest of peas, corn, okra and tomatoes swam in a gravy-like white wine/vegetable stock sauce — a revelation occurred: "Damn. I really like peas," I remarked. And as I sat back, savoring the tiny green bites, my faith was restored.