Last night, I’d made plans to eat at a new-ish vegetarian restaurant in Paris. While it was previously a long-running joke about trying to get food without meat in Paris, times have changed, and a number of vegetarian places have popped up in the past year. Unfortunately there is little creativity in the vegetarian places and instead of celebrating the wonderful produce of France, they seem to have no idea that A) It’s summer, and B) There is summer produce.
The café we went to, as we scanned the selections on offer, there were three fried balls of buckwheat groats (€12), which was the lone main course. Not to be insulting, but they looked like something you would have gotten from a hippie-dippy health food store in the 1970s. In my mind, I started thinking back to Greens in San Francisco, which celebrated glorious vegetables and vegetarian cooking, and the Grain Store, which I recently visited in London, an old factory converted to a light-filled restaurant with a menu that "..gives vegetables equal billing, if not the starring role" with an amazing bar and run by, yes, a French chef. So what's taking so long for Paris to catch on?
I won’t rehash the tired jokes about vegetarian cuisine in Paris, but times have changed and most cafés nowadays offer a salad or something vegetable-oriented. But rarely, if ever, are vegetables celebrated or served with creativity. (Some of the new, chef-driven places do make use of vegetables, but they’re often thinly sliced, and served decoratively on a plate as part of a meal. But not something you could make a dinner out of.)
But why not focus on vegetables? Make a quiche or tarte salée with lovely Brie de Meaux, chervil, and tomatoes from Provence. Swirl some pistou into a soup made of chickpea flour fritters and delicate zucchini blossoms. Or fill a buckwheat-salted butter crust with summer tomatoes and goat cheese, melting on top. Why is vegetarian cuisine being given short-shift in Paris?
There were recently a couple of documentaries on television shown in France the other night (one you can watch here, in French and German). One focused on how industrial meat and poultry are raised, and another on how more people in Europe are trying to eat less meat, and a more vegetable-based diet. As for myself, I’ve dialed down how much meat I eat, and am trying to include more vegetables in my diet.
One difficulty is that to many, imagining a meal without meat in France was, well, unimaginable. But it’s 2013, and places serving cuisine végétarienne are springing up here and there. Yet most are offering up plastic boxes of a mound of plain quinoa salad heaped inside, with two leaves of arugula garnishing it, or a trio of buckwheat patties that the 70s would like back, or a sorry-looking tray of, well, whatever.
I think there’s a great opportunity in Paris for an amazing restaurant, in a wide-open space, that serves vegetable-focused food. And when it happens, I’ll be the first to go. Heck, I’ll bring the Negronis!