BY ELENA MANCINI
Despite the sustained ascendancy of organic restaurants, forage-cooking and locavoric awareness in recent years, the notion of a vegetarian meal still conjures up images flavorless mock meats and boiled broccoli spears in the American mainstream imaginary. Table Verte’s Chef Ken Larsen vigorously puts these outdated stereotypes and biases to bed, and brings a fresh and flavor-forward approach with a French-focus to vegetarian and vegan dining. A New York native of Norwegian extraction, Larsen was trained in the French culinary tradition. He recognizes Marcus Samuelsson, with whom he had the opportunity to work at Aquavit and Terence Brennan among his culinary influences.
A graduate of New York’s French Culinary Institute and with fifteen years of professional experience in kitchens of France and New York, including a stint in a steak house, Larsen’s journey to vegan and vegetarian cooking evolved along with developments in his own life and relationships. A former triathaloner, Larsen decided to embrace a vegan diet five years ago. During his training, he researched endurance diets and found that a plant-based diet to be the most effective in giving him the energy and vitality of an eighteen year old–Larsen is forty-one. Larsen has a vibrant and youthful complexion and his animated speech and spirited gestures quell suspicions of hyperbole.
Larsen’s approach to cooking is very grounded: “Food has to do more than deliver a health property; it has to nurture and have an emotional quality.” Presenting a healthy, nutritious way of eating without sacrificing taste is at the center of Larsen’s mission. He enjoys prepping and combining grains, greens and root vegetables to deliver delicious flavors, textures and vitamin and protein contents. Larsen’s philosophy was in perfect alignment with the concept behind Table Verte. Opened in October 2012, a few short weeks before the wrath of Superstorm Sandy descended upon the region, Table Verte is restaurateur-chef, Didier Pawlicki’s latest venture. A French transplant and seasoned New York entrepreneur, Pawlicki is also the owner of Taureau and La Sirène in Soho, Manhattan. Table Verte is Pawlicki’s first vegetarian venture. His foray into vegetarian food was in large part a response to his clientele’s request and way of honoring the local community of diners in the East Village, where Table Verte is located.
Pawlicki’s commitment to “creating a restaurant designed not only to satisfy people’s dietary requirements but to create happy people” found its synergistic match with Larsen’s culinary background and philosophy of bringing vegetarian flavor profiles forward and taking his primary resources from a state of rustic to refined without compromising their integrity. With Table Verte Larsen and Pawlicki intend to offer vegetarians and vegans alike with a refined vegetarian and vegan menu and to make vegetarian eating approachable for all.
Larsen describes the opportunity to work with Pawlicki as serendipitous as it allows him to grow and thrive as a chef by experimenting, push boundaries in creating delectable, gourmet vegetarian and vegan alternatives to beloved French dishes. He describes his work environment as his own “inner think tank box” to explore the endless variety of vegetables and things that can be done to them. Larsen is presently working on a vegetarian cookbook composed of recipes and anecdotes. His intent is to show how healthy eating can be rewarding to the palate and easily prepared at home and accessible to adults and children alike. Larsen has two teenaged daughters who have chosen to embrace a vegan diet with him.
Offering a French bistro menu that is 50 percent vegetarian and 50 percent vegan, Table Verte is an intimate and casual space, cheerfully decorated with bright murals evoking sixties bohemian flair with table tops appropriately colored kelly green. It seats approximately 40 people. Currently BYOB, it will be offering a list of select global wines and imported beers in the fall.
Whether you’re vegetarian or not, Table Verte will prove both interesting and worthwhile.
Dinner entrees range from $16 – low 20$ range. Appetizers and desserts are under $10.
There is also $40 three-course prix-fixe dinner menu — anything off the menu.
Poached Asparagus with Fennel Mayonnaise was the consummate spring dish. The asparagus was fresh and toothsome. Fennel mayonnaise was a light and refreshing complement to this dish. Pickled shallots added interesting texture and kick.
The Assiette de Crudite is a root salad medley is a lovely dish that epitomizes the idea of nutrition and flavor delivery. Composed of shredded celery root with lemon juice, lentils vinaigrette and beets with horseradish prepared with fresh seasonal herbs, it is the ultimate consummate “feel good” dish with its low caloric content and delicious flavors.
While there can be no question about the nutritional value of a dish Balsamic Roasted Strawberries with Brussels Sprouts, Larsen’s preparation with roasted strawberries in a balsamic reduction makes this a fun, spring dish for the color and sweetness delivered by the strawberries and the contrast with the earthy, bitter Brussels sprouts. For those for whom “eating your Brussels sprouts” represents a chore, this preparation will cause it to feel less so.
A dish commonly prepared with meat, Table Verte’s Cassoulet Vegetalien is a deeply flavorful entree that evokes the earthy grounding flavors of meat while being 100% vegan. It’s ideal for a cold winter day or a rainy night. Elegantly plated in a Creuset terrine, it is composed of a mixture of white and colored beans, thyme and sprigs of fresh herbs and a side of wild rice, it is deliciously aromatic and a satisfying entree.
Gnocchi Parisian is a rich and hearty option for the more bistro-oriented experience. Feather like gnocchi come baked au gratin under a thick coat of white sauce, white truffles and Swiss cheese.
On the lighter side of entrees are Roast Yams. Infused with star anise, they come served with sauteed watercress and raisin cous cous.
As a side dish (or a guilt-free dessert), try the yam cake. It consists of thin layers of yams–stacked in Napoleon fashion– and is generously seasoned with cinnamon and nutmeg and will conjure up Thanksgiving memories any time of the year.
Also showing no signs of compromise are Table Verte’s desserts, which are also prepared by Chef Larsen.
My favorite among these is the semolina cake, which is Chef Pawlicki’s grandmother’s recipe. Made from semolina wheat flour, the cake has a light and creamy texture and is subtly sweet. The cake’s flavors are enhanced by rum-soaked raisins and a delightful coat of Creme Anglaise.
Banana Creme Brulee is a fun twist on Creme Brulee. Banana fibers alter the texture of the dessert favorably and bestows a dimension of natural sweetness upon this classic dessert.