I have to confess that I sometimes dread traveling with my husband, who’s a vegetarian. Sure, there are some great vegetarian restaurants around, but their offerings are often limited, and I am not a fan of the tofu or beans that are too often the non-animal protein substitute of vegetarian dishes.
Plus, when we visit new cities, I want to try the restaurants that everyone’s buzzing about – and, those are usually restaurants where vegetarian options are an afterthought (sure, there are exceptions, like Vedge in Philadelphia, but they’re rare.)
So, when we decided to head to Las Vegas recently, we were both happily surprised to discover that some of the best vegetarian food on the Strip is actually being served at a steakhouse and a French fine dining restaurant.
Twist by Pierre Gagnaire at the Mandarin Oriental and SW Steakhouse at the Wynn – award-winning restaurants that local friends had highly recommended – both feature dedicated vegetarian menus. I’m not talking about a couple of let’s-throw-the-vegetarians- a-(plant-based)-bone options, but full menus as lovingly curated as the regular ones.
At SW, the “meatballs” were so delicious, my husband asked the chef to come out and confirm that they were really vegetarian. I had a moment of panic because he was so enthralled with the taste and texture that it was hard to believe there was no meat in them.
“That’s our goal,” laughed David Walzog, executive chef of SW Steakhouse and Lakeside. “We strive to keep the genre of a steakhouse in mind and offer dishes that not only match the appearance of the non-vegetarian dishes, but are equally full-flavored, nutritious and filling.”
Relieved, my husband finished with a big grin on his face while I tried not to moan with pleasure over the Sanuki wagyu, probably the best steak I have ever eaten.
All of the Wynn restaurants have been featuring fully vegan options for the past six years, since Steve Wynn himself asked his chefs to come up with creative, all-inclusive menus.
“He recognized that vegan dining needed to be taken very seriously by us to allow our guests to have options when it came to plant-based dishes,” said Walzog.
Wynn enlisted world-renowned vegan chef Tal Ronnen to come in three or four times a year to work with the chefs on different dishes and show them new techniques he’s developed.
Besides the Gardein meatballs with marinara sauce and creamy polenta, some of SW Steakhouse’s most popular vegetarian dishes include a chickpea crepe served with green chickpea hummus and smoked paprika, and roasted maitake mushrooms with eggplant caponata and aged sherry vinegar.
“At Lakeside, our seafood restaurant, we have a ‘crab cake’ made from hearts of palms, which act like the lump crabmeat, plus all the other ingredients you’d find in a real crab cake,” Walzog explained. “We also serve ‘clam’ chowder made with a cashew cream base that has smoked Oyster mushrooms, potato and Kombu broth to give it that ocean flavor. All of our dishes stay within the genre of the concept, with a few crafty turns to make them vegan.”
Twist by Pierre Gagnaire at the Mandarin Oriental also features some crafty turns – but, mostly, just extraordinary food.
Gagnaire, who has earned three Michelin stars for his iconic Paris restaurant, has created a vegetarian tasting menu to match the standard tasting menu, and it is simply amazing.
According to Twist’s chef de cuisine, Frédéric Don, “Luxury is about having choices. We wanted to make sure guests didn’t feel like they were missing out on anything, quantity nor flavor, when ordering the vegetarian tasting menu. We worked hard to ensure that no part of the tasting menu experience was compromised, that a vegetarian was leaving as satisfied as someone who ordered our standard tasting menu.”
The five or six course menu – your choice, but more of Twist’s food is always better – is an experience to savor, whether you opt for the standard or vegetarian.
My husband was sure that the vegetarian menu would just remove the animal proteins or replace them with tofu, but that was pedestrian thinking – and way off base.
Instead, my Mediterranean line-caught seabass and Canadian venison saddle with juniper berries were matched by tortellini with grilled zucchini, pattypan squash, Dundee Pinky and pitchi Sauce, and potato tuile with artichoke cream, cremini mushrooms, sweet onions marmalade and a mix of wild mushrooms.
Even the veggies were a work of art. ‘The chef’s garden’ is a beautiful display of micro heirloom vegetables that sit on top of a refreshing gelée and fromage blanc ice cream. If this is how we were always presented with vegetables, we’d all be healthier eaters.
“The combination of flavors is what makes all of our dishes at Twist unique, a trait that Chef Gagnaire is known for,” said Don. “The vegetarian poached egg dish is a combination of the rich flavors of the egg and gorgonzola, the earthy flavor of the spinach veloute with the lighter/sweeter flavors of the tomato concasse and arugula complimented by the pine nut croquette and brioche. There is a lot of thought that goes into each dish and how the flavors will taste combined. We designed it so that there would be no mistake to guests that the vegetarian tasting menu is not a “substitute menu” but that it was created with the same intention of enjoyment as the traditional tasting menu.”
As more and more people become vegetarians, this trend is likely to grow.
But, for now, SW Steakhouse and Twist are sure bets for both meat eaters and vegetarians. And, in Las Vegas, especially, sure bets are hard to come by.