Vegan restaurants entice vegetable-loving foodies

Meat substitutes made from plants and proteins gain wider appeal.

By Times wires
Published May 3, 2007

FORT LAUDERDALE - The fake meat at this upscale vegan restaurant doesn't taste like mystery meat. Depending on the night, it's more like hearty meat loaf with a mushroom sauce, pork tenderloin or Mediterranean grilled chicken skewers.

At Sublime, cascading waterfalls trickle from 10-foot windows in a low-lit dining room filled with live palm trees and customers sampling $19 caviar - made of seaweed, not fish eggs.

Once a network of grungy, obscure cafes, the vegetarian and vegan experience in some cities has blossomed on par with its carnivorous counterparts, complete with Zagat ratings and celebrity clientele.

There are 1, 000 to 1, 200 vegetarian restaurants in the United States, almost double the number seven years ago, according to Dennis Bayomi, president of VegDining.com, an online guide to vegetarian restaurants. Besides Sublime, he estimates there are more than a dozen fine-dining vegan restaurants nationwide, though that number is more difficult to track.

Part of the transformation owes to advances in cooking that allow chefs to prepare proteins like tofu with a taste and texture similar to meat. They can do the same thing with tempeh, which consists of fermented soybeans with a more grainy texture, and seitan, a concentrated wheat gluten.

Experts also credit the rise to an expanding global pantry, where vegetarian dishes are no longer relegated to the back of a menu but have become main-plate specials.

"The door is wide open, " said Eve Felder, associate dean for culinary arts at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. "It's been going on in pockets for years, but it's much more of a trend across restaurants now."

Sublime owner Nanci Alexander has never turned a profit since opening in 2003 and doesn't receive a paycheck. The animal rights activist has no experience in the restaurant business, and says she opened Sublime only to help people stop eating meat. All proceeds, if there are any, would go to the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida.

"They can't stop if they don't have someplace to go, " she said. "I thought, 'How else can I help the animals?' I never wanted to be in the restaurant business."

Kathy Bernhard and Garrett Norman, both 24, recently drove four hours from Tampa just to eat there.

"Most every single place we go to isn't 100 percent vegetarian and if it is, it's not usually a nice atmosphere, " Norman said. "So we decided to make a weekend of it and we'll come back tomorrow and try something different."