Before opening the popular Young Joni, chef Ann Kim thought of having two wood-fired ovens and a wood-fired grill at her disposal, and immediately envisioned a grand complement to her famous pizzas.
Steak? Pork chops? Thick slabs of bacon?
“I’m no vegetarian, I want to make that clear,” she said. “But I love vegetables. And when you grill and roast vegetables, the flavor that comes out is really amazing. So I wanted to highlight that.”
She’s not the only one in the local food scene passionate about plants and finding creative ways to make them shine.
In eras past, a vegetable at a restaurant might have meant a halfhearted side salad or an order of steamed broccoli and carrots.
No more. These days, produce is more fab than drab, with colorful, inventive and seriously tasty plates hitting menus. Around the Twin Cities, chefs and restaurateurs are celebrating dirt-derived ingredients — deftly using fire, fermentation and a world of flavor to transform nature’s bounty from sideshow to star.
The result is often something not just multidimensional but beautiful, as well.
“The way we’re eating these days is changing,” Kim said. “People want flavor. They want to taste different things. They want to share. I feel like now the trend is going this way and it has chefs thinking really differently about vegetables.”
Kim grew up in a Korean-American household, where vegetables — usually many of them at a time — acted as the foundation at most meals. Martina chef Daniel del Prado, meanwhile, grew up in Argentina, where vegetables aren’t a big part of the eating culture — but he fell in love with them while traveling through Brazil and Southeast Asia.
Now he gets a kick out of customers telling him they “crave” his cucumber dish, and he likes to surprise people with his meatless, flavorful leek empanadas.
“Vegetables don’t have the umami that cheese or meat does, but that doesn’t mean you have to add bacon to everything,” he said. “I get a lot of satisfaction from cooking vegetables. I’m not trying to convince the world or be super avant-garde. But I like a challenge.”
Kim employs a lot of the same strategies for making vegetables shine — charring and fermenting and pickling, layering textures and flavors, creating depth with purées and adding nuts for crunch — and the effort shows. Her cauliflower dish is the bestselling item at Young Joni.
“It’s actually not that complex. It just takes a little more creativity and time,” she said. “With vegetables there are all sorts of possibilities; that’s where I really have a lot of fun.
“Vegetables are the stars, but you have those other flavors — bold and a little bit exotic — to sort of uplift and enhance them. That’s the way I want to cook. And to me it’s much more of an interesting way to eat.”
Check out these five vegetable dishes around the Twin Cities:
The roasted, wood-fired florets sit atop a yogurt-cauliflower purée and benefit from the crunch of slivered almonds, the zip of pickled Fresno peppers and the sweetness of golden raisins ($12).
Co-stars: Dishes such as the Japanese sweet potatoes with crème fraîche, pickled Fresno peppers and bonito flakes, and the grilled confit mushrooms with chestnut miso butter also receive rave reviews.
Young Joni (165 13th Av. NE., Mpls., youngjoni.com)
Caramelized Brussels sprouts
Take every memory of eating the green baby cabbages and throw it out. These fish-sauce tinged, rice-powder dusted sprouts are unlike anything you’ve tried ($7.50).
Co-stars: The squash and mushroom tacos with queso fresco and pumpkin seed salsa, and the mushroom bulgogi lettuce wraps rise above the average plant-based fare.
World Street Kitchen (2743 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls., eatwsk.com)
What most people think of as cold food is transformed with some heat and color, plus a spattering of rich feta and a punch of rice vinegar ($8).
Co-stars: Other flavor-packed vegetable plates include roasted carrot with farro and Swiss chard with toasted garlic, lime and seaweed.
Martina (4312 Upton Av. S., Mpls., martinarestaurant.com)
Roasted squash pastry
A succulent scoop of roasted butternut squash, creamy chèvre and olives are nestled between a pair of buoyant puff pastries for a decadent treat ($14).
Co-stars: Simple doesn’t mean boring as the grilled artichokes with romesco sauce and broccoli and lentil salad with lemon vinaigrette will surely show you.
Bar Brigade (470 S. Cleveland Av., St. Paul, barbrigade.com)
King falafel salad
The fried chickpea balls take the name, but they hold the stage along with kale, smoked beets, pickled onion and cucumber ($9 half, $15 whole).
Co-stars: A hefty vegetable section touts the likes of heirloom carrots with pecan butter and pecorino, and a raw salad with root vegetables, apples and cabbage.
Hasty Tasty (701 W. Lake St., Mpls., hastytastympls.com)