If you’re a fan of Amis, Marc Vetri’s Roman themed restaurant in Midtown Village helmed by chef Brad Spence, it may bring a particular image to mind: Meat. Sausage, head-on fish, even whole hogs is often what you’ll see in the chef’s lively twitter feed.
This is all part of a program dubbed “the beast of Amis,” and whether you eat meat or not, you must acknowledge the spirit of respectfulness behind it. Beast of Amis manifests on the menu as multiple courses featuring a variety of cuts from a whole (and often local) animal they’ve butchered in house. The animals are humanely raised and killed before going under the knife in the kitchen at Amis.
It’s obvious from his butchering zeal that chef Spence has a passion for protein. What is less apparent is that he has a similar passion for vegetables and vegetarian fare. “I don’t eat meat every day of the week,” says Spence. “I feel better when I eat less meat.” He isn’t alone—plenty of Philly based chefs harbor a surprising enthusiasm for meatless meals. As a result, there are more and more surprising spots to enjoy vegetarian meals that even avowed meat lovers will eat with gusto.
If you’re inspired to go meatless at least one day (or even one dinner) a week, Spence and a few other chefs around Philadelphia have you covered. Monday night at Amis is “Meatless Monday,” an awareness-raising program that was started by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health to encourage people to be sometimes-vegetarians. Around the country, a few influential chefs started offering a meatless Monday menu option, including Mario Batali—who inspired Spence to do the same.
On Mondays at Amis, you can now enjoy a three-course vegetarian meal for $35.
It helps that handmade pasta is the heart of Amis’ menu: Many of the meatless courses center around the world’s most beloved carb. Especially during the late summer and early fall, when local produce is at its most abundant and delicious, the opportunity for vegetarian main courses that are both flavorful and meatless abound. Recent Meatless Monday options have included spaghetti with kale and pecorino and an even more simple fresh pasta with garlic, chili, and mustard greens.
Not that the starchy stuff needs to carry the day. “We do a lasagna style dish but with thinly sliced eggplant instead of noodles,” says Spence. The entrée is topped with sweet, concentrated, rich tomato conserva. Spence says a combination of vegetarians and omnivorous food lovers show up for this weekly event. As the cold weather approaches and the growing season slows, he has no plans of dropping the program. “There’s always cheese,” he says.
Elsewhere in Center City another chef has dedicated one night a week to meatless meals. Anne Coll, chef at Meritage and a former vegetarian, offers a vegan tasting menu on Tuesday nights (also priced at $35). Her motivation is a little more health-focused. A former chef for Susanna Foo with a strong expertise in Asian cuisine, Coll finds it reasonably effortless to shed not just meat but all animal products from her menu—at least on Tuesday. “Everyone should try to go meat free at least one day a week,” says Coll. “It isn’t that big a deal—especially when you consider that not only does it benefit your health, it benefits the environment, too.”
Often, she reaches for some locally grown mushrooms to fill in for beef in meatless versions of dishes like her Korean-style tacos. She also makes a vegan iteration of Korean fried chicken with various vegetables standing in for the poultry. According to Coll, the flavor profile in many dishes comes from spicing and cooking technique, so even carnivores won’t miss the meat. And, just as at Amis, the meatless-night crowd is a mix of vegetarians, vegans, neighbors, regulars, and plain old foodies who want a taste of something a little different. After all, it’s pretty easy to cook up a steak yourself at home. Vegetarian food requires more chopping, more skill, and more inspiration.
What it does not require is a lower calorie count. In fact, Mitch Prensky, chef at Supper restaurant, calls his produce-heavy program “unhealthy vegetables.” He believes that plant foods should not be sentenced to their usual steamed, sauce-less health food purgatory. Buttered, fried, breaded, and beyond, his vegetable dishes are every bit as indulgent as the meaty pleasures of his Southern-inflected menu.
To wit: His recent puffy tacos, a dish that cradled smoked beets, goat cheese, and homemade chile sauce in an airy canoe of deep-fried corn flour. “I’m not a nutritionist,” says Prensky, who uses the twitter hashtag #unhealthyvegetables to promote these specials. Other subversive creations have included crispy fried eggplant topped with rich house-made ricotta and agrodolce as well as wax beans prepared in the style of French Fries, complete with a variety of sweet and fatty sauces.
Just because someone wants to eat vegetables doesn’t mean steamed broccoli must be on the menu. Both committed vegetarians and open-minded omnivores like having more delicious plant-based menu options than ever.