Forget steam table cookery. From delicate bites to boldly composed plates, it's a vegetable revolution.
1 of 6Photo: Robbie Caponetto
Welcome to the Vegetable Renaissance
Like pulled pork and fried chicken, the vegetable plate is embedded in the South's culinary DNA. But now, inspired by the surging interest in farming, a hotbed of forward-looking chefs is retooling the (ahem) garden-variety vegetable plate. In the same way our kitchen masters embraced snout-to-tail, whole-animal cookery over the last decade, they're forging close relationships with local growers and composing symphonies of produce that show off the region's year-round harvests in center-stage glory. And this isn't a reaction to any kind of health craze: It's really about the ingredients' deliciousness. Welcome to the vegetable renaissance.
2 of 6Photo: Robbie Caponetto
Miller Union, Atlanta
At Atlanta's Miller Union, executive chef Steven Satterfield leads the charge with a plate whose humble appearance—four ever-changing dishes mounded into quadrants like an edible pie chart—belies its sophisticated preparation. He considers contrasts in color, flavor, and texture: A succotash of corn and field peas bound with a splash of cream may sidle up to okra fried to order in a sheer cornmeal crust. To cut the richness, he'll also include, say, pickled beets punched up with ginger or sautéed zucchini tossed in a vinaigrette with garlic and just-picked mint.
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Restaurant Eugene, Atlanta
It's certainly not easy to finish the cornucopia bursting from a handsome handled pan at Atlanta's Restaurant Eugene. A dozen or more individually prepared vegetables—from seared okra to delicate stewed cherry tomatoes to a tempura squash blossom tinted mauve from beet juice—huddle together and flaunt the kitchen's technical prowess.
4 of 6Photo: Robbie Caponetto
Bottega, one of Southern food icon Frank Stitt's destination eateries in Birmingham, similarly elevates a seemingly unassuming plate. The Thursday night special in Bottega's café is a montage of vegetables—this time of year expect summer squash, creamed corn, crisp-tender green beans perked with sweet onion, and braised collards—so farm-fresh, the sunshine still practically radiates off of them. The finishing touch: a wedge of jalapeño cornbread baked by the restaurant's beloved pastry chef, Dolester Miles.
5 of 6Photo: Robbie Caponetto
At Husk Nashville, chef-partner Sean Brock and his team present "A Sampling of Summer Vegetables" on a platter carved from a tree trunk. Each dish looks like edible sculpture: charred carrots dappled with their own leafy tops, fried cauliflower sweetened by seared petals of baby onions, butter beans dotted with purple and white garlic flowers. A hearty side bowl of grits in tomato broth with a preserved egg ensures you leave the table full.
6 of 6Photo: Robbie Caponetto
In Houston, Justin Yu of Oxheart goes the farthest afield, wondrously deconstructing the idea of the vegetable plate with his multi-course “garden menu.” His creations are downright painterly, with simple pottery or ornate china as canvases for roasted and pickled okra with smoked garlic fanned in the shape of a crescent moon, a precise circle of avocado puree crowned with eggplant chips, or a homey stew of oyster mushrooms and field peas brightened by green beans. The presentations may be startling, but the familiar flavors sing of the same earthly gifts that have sustained Southerners for centuries.