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Long Island restaurants get creative to accommodate vegetarian, vegan diners

Vegan "eggs" Benedict at the Lindenhurst Diner.

Vegan "eggs" Benedict at the Lindenhurst Diner. Credit: Alejandra Villa Loarca

On a lush restaurant patio, the August sun low and masks tucked neatly away, a friend and I eye corn fritters just placed on the table between us. They are like miniature moonscapes, crisp and rough to the touch; soon, we stop talking as the soft crunch of tempura batter shatters and melts in our mouths — and on its heels, the sweetness of corn at the apex of summer. Batter, corn, hits of pepper, that's it — and they're perfect. 

There will be more to come — broiled littleneck clams in tomato butter, allspice-dusted tomatoes, lobster-knuckle risotto and something called broken beans, dried corn reanimated into a rich slurry underneath a truffle-dusted Parmesan crisp. All of it is meatless, though there is meat on the menu and neither of us is a vegetarian. “You really don’t miss it,” my friend observes, about meat in general, as we get up from the table.

It's true — which is sort of the point at North Fork Table & Inn in Southold, where one of the country’s most renowned vegetable-focused chefs, John Fraser, has taken up residence as chef-owner. He spins vegetables, legumes and even seaweed into objects of desire, even for those who reflexively order steak or roasted chicken (which are both on the menu, too).

“There’s a line that folks draw when it comes to vegan and vegetarianism, in many ways it turns off the ability for other [chefs] to experiment with it,” said Fraser a few days later. The chef has been a vegetarian himself for 8 years and ran the Michelin-starred vegetarian restaurant Nix in Manhattan until it closed this spring due to COVID-19.

Perfecting produce has been a career theme for Fraser — early on, he worked with chef Thomas Keller at Napa’s French Laundry and Alain Passard at L’Arpége in Paris.“ I’ve tried, in my way, to introduce things so they might say, ‘hey, this is delicious,’ or ‘hey, this is creative,’” he said, of getting people to eat more vegetables and legumes. “It’s an entryway. One meal a day, or one day a week, or one day a month — once more than they normally would.”

Though Fraser works at the nexus of East End produce and seafood, that same spirit — of blending meat, fish and plants so that the boundaries between labels are blurred — is one that has crept across Long Island menus, making for potentially more harmonious meals between those who love their burgers and those who wince at the idea of one.

VEGETABLE-FORWARD

Though only about 2% of Americans identify as vegan and 4% as vegetarian, according to 2019 Harris Poll for the Vegetarian Resource Group, you’d be hard pressed to find a chef or owner who has not responded to the tide of plant-based eaters walking through their door these days, while not forgetting the meat-and-potatoes crowd.

When he created the menu for Huntington’s burger-centric Vauxhall in 2015, chef Michael Meehan made sure meatless options were not just on the menu, but considered, such as a from-scratch chickpea-edamame burger. “We had a strong vegan following from day one,” said Meehan.

At NewWave Burrito Bar next door, which Meehan also helms, you can order chorizo-cheese empanadas or carnitas-filled burritos but also a quesadilla layered with Impossible meat or Nashville-style hot “chicken” tacos that don’t have an ounce of real chicken. And at Vauxhall, eaters can still tear into a bacon-and-cheddar-topped breakfast binge burger but also soy-based “wings” with sriracha-lime barbecue sauce. “We always keep vegan sauces around, such as vegan mayo or salsa verde, so people have alternatives,” said Meehan.

Places such as 3 Brothers Pizza Cafe in Farmingdale and Tula Kitchen in Bay Shore have long drawn vegans with nut-based cheeses and mock meats that replicate dishes such as fried calamari, cheesy pizza or a Reuben. Hicksville’s wealth of dosa eateries are mostly vegetarian, too, and at places such as the Purple Elephant in Northport, omnivores can tuck into soy-based burnt-end enchiladas and not necessarily notice the difference.

That catchall approach is becoming more widespread in unexpected places, such as at the chrome-clad Lindenhurst Diner, where staff rolled out a lengthy, parallel vegan menu last year. Plant-based versions of diner staples such as eggs Benedict (or eggs ‘Venedict,’ made with JUST egg) and dairyless cheesy tots cover its pages. “The chef [Nick Hannides] uses a base from Daiya [a vegan cheese produced] and builds from there,” said manager Joseph DiBartolo, adding that there will be also be vegan dishes at a diner-to-go that the same owners will soon open in Merrick.

Back at the North Fork Table, Fraser doesn’t engage with nut-based cheeses and mock meats, even though he eats plenty of tofu in his private life. “We try and stay away from the mushroom-that-tastes-like-meat kind of thing,” Fraser said. “We’ like to make it taste like a mushroom.”.

Here are six places on Long Island where all stripes of eaters — carnivores, pescatarians, flexitarians, vegans — can break bread together and all leave happy.

WHERE TO GO

Lindenhurst Diner (195 E. Montauk Hwy., Lindenhurst): Last year, this 56-years-young classic diner added an entirely vegan menu of breakfast tacos and eggs ‘venedict’ avocado, at Impossible burgers and sriracha “chick’n” wraps. Chef Nick Hannides also caters to the standard diner crowd with the usual roster of gyros, Reubens and egg creams. More info: 631-991-8600, lindenhurstdiner.com

Vauxhall and NewWave Burrito Bar (26 and 24 Clinton Ave., Huntington): Plant-based burgers, made from scratch,  augment the usual meat burgers and other pub fare. At neighboring NewWave Burrito Bar vegans can grab soy-based, lime-adobo chicken wings while meat-eaters will find carnitas tacos, brisket quesadillas and burritos stuffed with Nashville-style fried chicken. More info: Vauxhall, 631-991-8600, vauxhallhuntington.com; NewWave Burrito Bar, 631-923-2622, newwaveburritobar.com

North Fork Table & Inn (57225 Main Rd., Southold): The longtime North Fork gem changed hands last winter, and chef-partner John Fraser subversively weaves imaginative vegetable, root and pulse dishes into the oeuvre. Think bursting tomatoes from KK’s Farm dusted with allspice, “broken beans” (dried corn) cooked almost into stew with a Parmesan crisp and shaved summer truffles, or slightly charred, wood-fired cauliflower layered with radicchio and showered with spiced chickpeas. Local black sea bass, Montauk tuna, lobster and sirloin — there is still plenty of flesh, too, and dinner is served across multiple patios or in the elegant indoor dining room. More info: 631-765-0177, northforktableandinn.com

The Onion Tree (242 Sea Cliff Ave., Sea Cliff): Earlier this year, Jay and Raquel Jadeja (former owner of Oakdale’s Wild Side Bistro) took over the former Oak Room Tavern, where they have enhanced the enveloping tavern vibe and serve a menu that moves gracefully from meat to fish to plants to beans. Charred Neopolitan-style pizza can come topped with cheese, with tikka masala chicken or simply with marinara sauce, and a coconut-based lentil curry is both rich and ultra comforting. Ginger-soy braised short ribs practically fall apart under your gaze, while tamarind, mustard, garlic, coriander, gochujang and other seasonings bring other dishes to life. More info: 516-916-5353, theoniontree.com

The Purple Elephant (81B W. Fort Salonga Rd., Northport): This five-year-old restaurant is a vaguely bohemian neighborhood fixture where chef-owner Sam Li proves the maxim that vegan food is not a game of sacrifice, drawing on the dishes of the American South and West as well as Mexico and central and South America for a mostly meatless oeuvre. Yucca fries or vegan nachos topped with refried red beans and vegan Cheddar can segue to mac-and-“cheese” (drenched in Daiya Cheddar), crispy avocado tacos, or churrasco steak.. “Burnt ends” enchiladas eschew brisket for soy protein, and house huckleberry lemonade refreshes — as does the sweeping view of Northport Harbor from the deck. More info: 631-651-5002, thepurpleelephantny.net

Spice Workshop (2503 Middle Country Rd., Centereach): Though takeout only for now, the kitchen is still plating poised, fiery Sichuan cuisine, a fair amount of it meatless. Peppery, cold chengdu noodles stained with chili oil, eggplant oil-braised to velvet or garlicky stir-fried snap-pea greens can sate both camps, but there’s cumin lamb or vinegar-doused ground pork with green beans. On the dry pot front, things get especially creative — cauliflower with pork belly is one option, but there's also vegan dry-pot potatoes. More info: 631-676-5065, spiceworkshoptogo.com

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