If you’re a vegetarian in New Orleans you’ve probably learned to ask questions before digging in and you know to never take the name of a dish at face value.
This is a town, after all, where the key ingredient in traditional vegetable soup is beef. And it’s widely accepted here that when the cook tells you your beans were made with love, she means made with pork.
These days though I’ve been finding more New Orleans restaurants where it’s omnivores like me who might want to pay closer attention to the menu description. In the past few months I’ve had beet tartare – not beef tartare – terrines and rillettes made without a trace of pork, ceviche without any seafood and even boudin balls that never went anywhere near the butcher shop.
Heresy you say? I’ve heard it, on social media, of course, because that’s where people go to rant about such things.
But these are not dishes intended to trick someone into a vegetarian meal or to banish a beloved flavor. They are not dishes with agendas. Instead, they point to a bigger view of the pleasures of the plate, as we’ll see a moment.
First though, it’s worth noting that New Orleans is a friendlier city now for vegetarians. More restaurants cater specifically to the lifestyle, and this weekend in particular brings the return of NOLA Veggie Fest, held Saturday and Sunday at Kingsley House by the Irish Channel. It’s an annual showcase for what’s available and what’s possible for food in New Orleans that doesn’t involve animals.
But there’s another trend at play that’s a little more prevalent, if a little less obvious, and it turns up at omnivorous restaurants where vegetable dishes, in all their meatless glory, get at least equal billing next to the shrimp and sausage. These restaurants aren’t vegetarian but when you order what sounds good you may just end up with a meatless meal anyway.
That’s what led me to the beet tartare, a crunchy, sculpted composition served at Bar Frances, a wine bar and bistro on Freret Street in Uptown New Orleans. Those vegetable terrines and rillettes were part of a meatless tasting platter at Palace Café, a Creole stalwart on Canal Street. The ceviche, minus fish but with avocado and mushrooms and beans in a spicy/tangy marinade, came from Carmo, an always inventive downtown spot. And those boudin balls – or, if you must, mushrooms and eggplant and rice in the form of boudin balls – those came from DTB, a newcomer on Oak Street that takes down-the-bayou Louisiana flavors through its own paces. Just for context, alligator chorizo and barbecue redfish are also in play in the DTB kitchen.
When we talk about the riches of Louisiana food, it's often the bounty of seafood or maybe the Cajun smokehouse. And yes, when we sing those praises, I'm usually right there in the choir.
But, I also appreciate how chefs can make less obviously thrilling ingredients deliciously memorable, and that can mean meatless too. After all, with the culinary talent in this town, you don't always need the steak to bring some sizzle to your table.
NOLA Veggie Fest
Where: 1600 Constance St.
When: May 13, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; May 14, noon-6 p.m.
Free admission (VIP tickets $20)
Schedules and details at nolaveggiefest.com
4525 Freret St. 504-371-5043
605 Canal St., 504-523-1661
527 Julia St., 504-875-4132
8201 Oak St., 504-518-6889