Even in pork-happy Memphis there are a host of vegetarian options. More and more we are seeing seemingly unvegetarian restaurants focus on this type of cuisine. What these chefs are plating up is exciting, enticing, and incredibly delicious even for an omnivore such as myself.
"I haven't had meat in 18 years, and I do not miss it at all." says Rebecca Severs of Bari Ristorante. Her husband and the chef at Bari, Jason, worked at a now-defunct vegetarian restaurant in Knoxville called Tjaarda's.
In April, Bari hosted its first-ever vegetarian wine dinner. Most Memphis diners, when they think of Bari, think of outstanding fish and great quality charcuterie but not necessarily veggie food. "Most of the wine dinners we do are based on the wines, and Jason will create a menu for them," Severs says. "We were shocked at the outcome of the vegetarian dinner and will definitely do more of them. It was great having so many vegetarians present who hadn't been to Bari before."
When pairing wine with vegetarian food, all bets are off. There are no limits or constraints, which to some degree can be even more confusing. "I would consider all of the ingredients in the dish first — their flavors and texture — and go from there," Severs says. "A great thing about Italian wine is that it is so food-friendly."
Spot-on pairings of that evening included chilled pea soup with basil crema and Parmigiano-Reggiano biscotti served with Bisci Verdicchio and roasted potato gnocchi with wilted spinach, cremini mushrooms, caramelized onion, and shaved piave vecchio fi anno served with Tenuta Sant Antonio Scaia Rosso.
Events such as this dinner are helping to change the landscape of food and wine and the way people think about eating in Memphis. Granted, most of the people who attended the Bari dinner were vegetarian. However, the fact that some omnivores were there is a testament to the quality they were expecting as well as their desire to experience something uniquely delicious. Each wine was expertly paired and, of course, Italian. What I appreciated the most, aside from the food, were the wine choices. Not a Cabernet or Chardonnay in sight.
Recently, a local underground restaurant/supper club, eaTABLE (full disclosure: I'm a member), held their third dinner. People getting together for dinner is not news. However, eaTABLE is unique in that the cuisine is predominantly local and always vegetarian. Each guest chef chooses the theme, creates the menu, and cooks the meal with help from a couple "sous chefs." The courses are paired with a different wine or liqueur that is specifically chosen to match with the dish. Just two memorable dishes: The "oysters" Rockefeller with local shiitakes, Pernod, spinach, garlic, and Parmigiano was paired with Hugues Beaulieu Picpoul de Pinet, and the Saffron Arancini (risotto fritters) with roasted red pepper coulis was paired with Domaine Houchart Rosé.
Each dinner has brought together a wide array of people and personalities. Teachers, chefs, lawyers, artists, writers, vegetarians, pescatarians, and omnivores all gathered together for some locally focused, well-prepared, outstanding vegetarian food. One of the special things about this group is that its members give over control and are completely open to whatever the chef has in store for them. Not one person has given the impression that it's in any way a drastic leap of faith. There is a trust there that each and every morsel will be delicious. And it always is.
Domaine la Berthete "Sensation" Rosé 2009, Cotes du Rhone, France $12.99
Domaine Houchart Rosé 2009, Cotes de Provence, France $14.99
Bisci Verdicchio 2008, Marche, Italy $16.99
Cooper Mountain Tocai Friulano 2009, Willamette Valley, Oregon $15.99
Tenuta sant'Antonio Scaia Rosso 2009, Veneto, Italy $12.99
Novy Family Cellars Four Mile Creek Red 2008, California $11.99