Chains globalizing the center of the plate

Ethnic cues are reshaping meals with a plant-forward spin.
Photograph courtesy of Teranga

The traditional American dinner plate has long been dominated by a large piece of meat, poultry or fish. Petite portions of vegetables and grains have typically been thrust to the side. But with the push toward plant-forward eating, restaurants are trying to put those sides front and center and cut back on animal protein portions. It’s the way much of the world has been eating for centuries, and U.S. concepts are increasingly modeling their menus on global cuisines from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Mediterranean. These three operators are on the forefront. 

Familiar vehicle, lesser-known grain

Chef Pierre Thiam grew up in Senegal, and now is on a mission to share his West African food culture through his restaurant, Teranga, a fast casual that opened this year in New York City. “It’s a good way to introduce people to unusual ingredients,” says Thiam of the build-your-own-bowl concept. “You start with a grain, then add vegetables, garnishes and small amounts of Senegalese chicken or Moroccan-spiced salmon. It’s less scary to build your own than be presented with an unfamiliar finished dish.”

In the process, guests are naturally going in a plant-forward direction and getting acquainted with new ingredients. That includes fonio, a sustainable grain grown in West Africa that is one of the base options. Fonio is a smaller version of millet that looks like couscous but is a protein-rich, quick-cooking whole grain. Liberian red rice and cassava couscous are other base choices. Sweet potato and black-eyed pea stew, collard greens, okra, melon seed stew and spicy fried plantains are some of the veggie choices, and a selection of sauces—peanut, spiced tomato broth and caramelized onions and lime confit—finish off the bowls.

“You start with a grain, then add vegetables, garnishes and small amounts of Senegalese chicken or Moroccan-spiced salmon. It’s less scary to build your own than be presented with an unfamiliar finished dish.” —Pierre Thiam, Teranga

Adding Asian and Latin flair

Fast-casual Sweetgreen is a destination for produce-centric bowls that highlight seasonal, sustainable ingredients. “We give people a produce-based alternative, sourcing from over 300 local farms and changing the menu seasonally—twice over the summer,” says Michael Stebner, Sweetgreen’s director of culinary experience. And those menu items may change from location to location among the chain’s 96 restaurants, depending on what’s coming into the market in California as opposed to Chicago, for instance.

“Celebrating the source” and “making the veggies the star” are what drive menu innovation, says Stebner, but he is continually inspired by looking at other cuisines where produce is at the center of the plate. Southeast Asian and Japanese flavors are on the top of his list. “We just finished a bowl for our Houston market that is a play on Vietnamese nuoc cham flavors and has a dressing based just on fish sauce, lime juice and aromatics—no oil,” he says. The Shroomami bowl has a Japanese accent, featuring wild rice, shredded kale, raw beets, cucumbers, basil, spicy sunflower seeds, roasted sesame tofu and a warm portobello mix tossed with a Japanese-flavored dressing made with miso, sesame, ginger and chili.

On the Latin side, the Elote Bowl is a popular summer specialty inspired by the flavors of Mexican street corn. It’s a mix of roasted corn and peppers, tomatoes, shredded cabbage, cilantro, local goat cheese, tortilla chips, spicy sunflower seeds, warm quinoa and arugula, dressed with a lime-cilantro-jalapeno vinaigrette. But Stebner also taps ideas from the Middle East in developing seasonal bowls. In the works is a warm Roasted Carrot and Sumac bowl. Several bowls are listed with just the vegetarian ingredients, with the option to add on a protein for an additional cost.

Inspired by a legacy of plant-forward cuisines

The cooking of the countries surrounding the Mediterranean define Roti Modern Mediterranean, a fast casual specializing in customizable bowls and wraps. Israeli is the heart of the menu, says Molly McGrath, Roti’s chef and culinary director, but the menu ventures into other parts of the Middle East and North Africa.

Roti was one of the first fast casuals to mainstream Israeli couscous on its menu, and topping choices including hummus, pickled onions, falafel and dilled yogurt also have Israeli roots, McGrath says. “Ten years ago, we were ahead of the curve with Israeli ingredients,” she adds. “But Roti does not want to be classified as a falafel shop.”

Toward that end, warm Moroccan spices such as cinnamon, cumin, cardamom and cloves are blended into the proprietary rubs for chicken and steak, and schug, a hot Yemenite sauce, is one of the most popular add-ons, says McGrath. Additionally, a wide selection of roasted and fresh vegetables are on hand to complete the bowls and wraps. “You can’t get to the end of the line without creating a Mediterranean-style plant-forward dish,” she says.

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