Crispy ham and cheese crêpes, a salty peppercorn sauce serenading a red cut of meat, salads with tuna and mayo-mustard dressings. These are what we think of when we think of French cuisine, paired, of course, with a nice red wine. But the meat-heavy tendencies are starting to be challenged by a lighter option: vegetables.
Plant-based eating has been trending. Vegan sushi chains, burger joints, ice cream parlors and health foods stores have taken cities from New York to Los Angeles to Paris by storm. Now, this surge in plant-based eating, be it for health or environmental reasons, has begun competing with the realm of meaty dishes of France.
Plant-based French fare is popping up all over New York, either in the form of vegetarian and vegan dishes or as a dedicated menu, at restaurants looking to appease their herbivore clientele. Though these restaurants’ approaches may differ, the goal is widespread: make plant-based food more accessible to a wider range of people.
Le Botaniste, a new plant-based café with three locations in New York, embodies this idea. “A lot of the time people come in and they don’t know it’s vegan food,” explains Alizée Wyckmans, the company’s brand and catering manager. And that’s kind of the point of the popular lunchtime spot that allows you to make your own bowl with hearty bases like vegetable tagine and spreads that imitate the tuna on a traditional Niçoise salad. The restaurant is “accessible for everyone,” Wyckmans continues, which is part of their mission to make healthy, plant-based options more of an easy alternative. Similarly, the Lower East Side wine and tapas bar Ladybird keeps its plant-based menu casual enough to be approachable and doesn’t fail to deliver on flavor-packed bites anyone can enjoy.
Delice & Sarrasin, a quaint vegan French restaurant, attracts non-vegans by making the plant-based aspect of their cuisine apparent. “’Wait a minute, it’s French and vegan? How does that work?’” posits owner Christophe Caron, like a customer would. And, because veganism has become so hip recently, “they come and try.”
The fact that the branding of vegan food varies widely isn’t much of a surprise. Almost every restaurant has their own priorities and even if those happen to be similar, the method of execution is varied. For Delice & Sarrasin, the marketing angle is healthy eating that’s true to the classic French flavors and dishes, thanks to vegan substitutions. “They think ‘oh, it’s the same cuisine, it’s French but it’s healthier.’ It’s in the head. It is healthier but for them, it’s [a] psychological [thing] to come in and have vegan food,” explains Caron.
Straying away from using imitation foods, the Williamsburg vegan and gluten-free crêperie, Little Choc Apothecary, focuses on entirely homemade ingredients free of chemical binders or overly processed ingredients. Owner Julia Kravets herself struggled with finding vegan baked goods that weren’t chock full of added sugars, preservatives, or other non-natural ingredients. Though Kravets takes inspiration from classic French flavors, her crêperie doesn’t try to fully imitate French crêpes. She offers a “Garden of Eatin’” crêpe, which features a creamy yet zesty pesto and tofu ricotta, and there’s also a banana “newtella” option to play off the classic crêpe Nutella.
The theory behind Kravets’ menu relies on scrumptious plant-based treats in which the quality of the ingredients is heightened and the nutrients is preserved. “I wanted somewhere I can come in and have literally anything on the menu and have it be okay,” explains Kravets of her motivation to open a fully vegan crêperie. Similarly, Le Botaniste follows the mantra “let thy food be thy medicine,” as exemplified by their emphasis on local products and the array of old medicine bottles decorating the walls. Their menu, naturally, is labeled, “prescriptions.”
Another focus of plant-based cuisine is attention to the seasons of local plants. Chef Alain Verzeroli of the Upper East Side restaurant Le Jardinier, speaks to this as part of the inspiration for his cuisine. It is important to be “aware of seasonality, especially in a big city like New York where it’s harder to be connected with the rhythm of nature.”
The lush and elegant restaurant is not exclusively plant-based but offers many options that are or can be made vegan-friendly, similar to L’atelier de Joël Robuchon, which has a robust vegetarian menu easily made vegan. Though not in everyone’s price range, this is how the cuisine remains open to everyone while promoting a healthier fine dining experience. “Our goal is for guests to experience the robust flavors, quality, and freshness you would expect from fine dining, but to demonstrate that you can achieve this without a lot of sugar, cream, etcetera,” explains Verzeroli. At Ladybird, similar decadence is achieved with their vegan fondue — a healthier alternative to the usually heavy cheese dish — served with toasted bread, crisp potatoes, and an array of roasted vegetables, plus a few bite-size French cornichons.
Whether trying to translate plant-based ingredients into previously meaty dishes or simply featuring the vegetables and their individual flavors in their own right, restaurants have increased the status and availability of vegan and plant-based French food.
With growing concern about unsustainable food systems, animal mistreatment, and the environmental impact of the meat and dairy industry, plant-based eating has become associated with sustainable living. Like many of these chefs who cook plant-based foods, Little Choc Apothecary’s Julia Kravets considers this to be a motivation behind her work. “I get to do no harm and am spreading this resolution that it’s possible to have a delicious, healthy, and cruelty-free business.”
If these restaurants prove anything, it’s that you don’t have to sacrifice flavor or Frenchness for healthfulness or sustainability.
French vegan recommendations
Delice & Sarrasin – foie gras, cheese platter, escargots
20 Christopher St, New York, NY 10014
Ladybird – mushroom toast, fondue (serves 2-3)
111 E 7th St, New York, NY 10009
L’atelier de Joël Robuchon – vegetarian menu can easily be made vegan
85 10th Ave, New York, NY 10011
Le Botaniste – vegetable tagine, botanical salad with seaweed tartare
127 Grand St, New York // 666 Third Ave, New York // 833 Lexington Ave, New York
Le Jardinier –baby lettuce and grilled avocado salad with lemon dressing, farro risotto
610 Lexington Ave, New York, NY 10022
Little Choc Apothecary – Garden of eatin’ crêpe, “newtella” banana crêpe
141 Havemeyer St, Brooklyn, NY 11211