Trend Feast

Globally-Inspired Veggie Small Plates

Sep 26, 2023

Globally-Inspired Veggie Small Plates

For his second restaurant, chef Sahil Sethi decided on a modern Middle Eastern theme. Sifr Chicagos boasts a swanky rooftop lounge, a stylish dining room pulsating with clubby global beats, and an open kitchen where ingredients are slow-cooked over charcoal and a wood-fired hearth.

The latter is something diners notice as soon as they step inside this Chicago eatery as the distinct aromas of meats, vegetables and spices permeate the air. The vegetables, especially, appear to be a big hit, Sethi says, adding that often guests fill up on the hearty, yet small-plate dishes that are mostly seasonally focused.

“Some people just want to eat small plates and go home,” Sethi explains about signature dishes like hearth-roasted asparagus, housemade hummus made with charred green chickpea, and amber-roasted melon topped with feta mousse, pickles, pine nuts and radish. “But [small plates] are also a good way of setting up the tone for the larger dishes to come.”

According to Datassential, while only 11% of consumers’ last globally inspired dish was an appetizer, side or snack, the most exciting offerings are typically plant-forward.¹ That’s because plant-based dishes are common in global cuisines, explains the leading food and beverage market research and intelligence firm. Most prominent are pulse-based dishes in Indian cuisine, the usage of legumes and nuts in West African stews, and a host of international influences from Asia, Latin America and the Mediterranean.1

Play with your food; play with plant-based small plates

Sethi enjoys working with vegetables because he uses all sorts of techniques to manipulate them for optimal flavor. “That helps in building different flavor profiles for a lot of small plates,” he says. “I think you can choose a lot of them, eat and share. With larger plates, you tend to get only two because they are large in format. With the small plates, customers order more, and it also helps give them a [better] glimpse of the menu.”

In addition to the signature amber-roasted melon, there are shareable dishes like Tunisian eggplant enhanced by Roma tomatoes, yogurt, pine nuts and herbs; herb falafel with a touch of harissa tahini; and grilled maitake mushrooms with charred yellow pepper, zaatar, Meyer lemon and parsley. Most ingredients for these small plates are sourced locally, which allow Sethi and his culinary team to create massive pops of flavor everywhere.

“We're lucky enough to be sitting in the center of so much abundance of good food,” he says. “Getting availability, product-wise is not a problem. How you use it all is the key.”

Making cauliflower the star of the small-plate menu

According to Datassential, cauliflower and tofu are on about a fifth of menus, although cauliflower has grown 16% over the past four years.1 At Sifr, Sethi’s bountiful Middle Eastern offering consists of hearth-roasted cauliflower topped with caramelized onions, tomatoes and pumpkin seed dukkah (traditional Egyptian condiment of herbs, nuts and spices).

And over at The Red Barber, a rooftop restaurant and bar located atop the Catbird Hotel in Denver’s iconic RiNo Art District, chef Kiley Farley puts a Thai spin on her cauliflower dish. Bang Bang Cauliflower is oven roasted, tossed in a housemade sriracha sauce, sweet chili, spices, lots of fresh garlic and lime.

“I had a ton of fun creating all the vegan/veggie dishes on the menu,” says Farley, adding that half of her menu consists of plant-based, shareable dishes. “They are all packed with a ton of flavor and fresh ingredients. My favorite part was having people who might be skeptical about a vegan-based dish be wonderfully surprised by how good they were. My goal was for these veg-based dishes to be inclusive to all.”

Another big hit on Farley’s menu is the vegan nachos, which is also gluten-free with housemade “nacho cheese,” avocado crema, pico de gallo, cilantro, corn and black beans. The plant-based cheese is made from soaked raw cashews blended with nutritional yeast, spices and jalapeños. She created the dish because she wanted to introduce a tasty, innovative bar snack that everyone could enjoy.

“I was inspired to make this dish because of my brother, who has been vegan for my entire career as a chef,” Farley explained. “Many times, when we go out, it is hard to find options that are not only available, but also delicious, approachable, and make you feel like you aren't missing out. I was also inspired by my passion for bringing healthy options to a bar setting. I am a huge advocate for healthy, fresh food that can taste good and be satisfying, too.”

Drawing in carnivores with global, plant-based small plates

The global approach to plant-based eating, she continues, helps to bring non-vegans into the fold.

“Before, I don't think people really thought about eating plant-based dishes, and now it's becoming more approachable,” she says. “A lot of people might want to eat more plant-based diets, but the [restaurant] industry hasn't made it easy until the last few years. Chefs are starting to experiment more, and people are getting more curious.”

That is certainly the truth at Ubuntu, a newly opened, Nigerian-inspired eatery in Los Angeles. Owned by Shenarri “Greens” Freeman—a James Beard semifinalist who took New York by storm with her soul-food vegan restaurant Cadence—the sleek establishment modernizes classic West African cuisine.

“I wanted to explore ingredients through West African cuisine and connect the dots with my Southern roots and love for Caribbean cuisine,” Freeman explains on Instagram. “It’s a passion project, but it’s also a call to action. [Black chefs] need to be cooking our food, we need to be celebrating our food, and we need to tell our stories.”

Enticing dishes like jollof arancini with curry, tomato and miso; palm bisque with hearts of palm, fried shallots and parsley oil; and a hand pie stuffed with lion’s mane mushrooms, habanero and tamarind apple sauce are big sellers and attracting hardcore carnivores.

All dishes are soy-free, and Freeman features the likes of pickled veggies (pickled mustard seeds), peppers and peas (black-eyed peas, pigeon peas) in various dishes. According to Datassential, these are very popular ingredients, with peas on more than a quarter of menus—particularly on FSR menus.1

Ready to try some veggie small plates of your own? Here are a few tasty recipes from the Simplot Culinary Team:

Middle Eastern Corn Salad
Bright, crunchy and versatile, this vegan salad features flame-roasted corn, chickpeas, tomatoes, cucumber, red onion and fresh mint. Don’t skimp on the housemade lemon tahini dressing—it’s delicious.
View Recipe »

Japanese Tempura Vegetables
What’s the best way to get people to eat their vegetables? Tempura! Lightly batter carrots, broccoli and cauliflower and quick-fry until golden and crispy. Serve with a housemade soy-ginger sauce.
View Recipe »

Italian Cauliflower Rice Risotto
A lightened-up version for your carb-conscious and vegetarian customers with all the flavor and creamy texture of the traditional version. Featuring Simplot Simple Goodness™ Premium Vegetables Riced Cauliflower.
View Recipe »

Korean-Spiced Roasted Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes marinated in a punchy sweet-hot gochujang sauce and roasted until caramelized and tender. Serve these as an appetizer or side with two housemade dipping sauces.
View Recipe »

Deconstructed Nicoise Salad
Simple preparation and a handful of ingredients you likely already have on hand result in this satisfying entrée salad. Arrange it on a platter and serve it family-style, or make it grab-n-go with the dressing on the side.
View Recipe »

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1 Datassential: ReportPro, MenuTrends, and Consumer Preferences, 2023