The answer lies in that very omnivorism. While I eat everything - really, truly, just about everything - that certainly includes vegetables, and I enjoy a vegetable dish prepared with care and attention equally as much as any bit of pork or foie. Indeed, particularly in a tasting-menu format, there is often something exhausting about the parade of multiple animal proteins that so often serve as the centerpiece of multiple courses. I'm clearly not the only one who feels that way, as several notable restaurants now do vegetable tasting menus (Thomas Keller's French Laundry and Per Se, Charlie Trotter's, Curtis Duffy's Avenues, to name just a few).
Plus, I was curious to see what Chef Brana could do when limited to flora without fauna. Brana's name might be familiar to South Florida diners with good memories. Back in 2004, he was named a Starchefs Rising Star while serving as the chef de cuisine at Norman Van Aken's now-closed "Norman's" in Coral Gables. In 2006, he went out on his own and opened Restaurant Brana (in the Gables space that is now Mint Leaf), but by January 2007 it was closed due to family medical issues. Brana spent some time out of the spotlight, but recently resurfaced with this series of private dinners.
Prior events have had decidedly more carnivorous themes, including Wagyu Beef and "Kiss My Pork Butt" dinners, and this was, I believe, the first time Chef Brana has done a vegetarian themed dinner. I didn't know when I signed up that the dinner would in fact be not only vegetarian, but entirely vegan, with no animal products whatsoever.
You can see all of my (disappointingly grainy) pictures from the dinner in this Jeffrey Brana Vegetarian Dinner flickr set. Here is the menu and my comments:
Oak Lettuce Salad with Carrot Vinaigrette and Pickled Green Tomatoes
Watermelon with Watermelon Radishes, Fennel, Micro Basil and Miso
Zucchini Soup with Spicy Relish
Pink Eyed Peas with Cherry Tomatoes and Wilted Lettuce
Polenta with Okra and Tomatoes
"Ugly Carrots" with Farro, Charred Onions and Coconut
Blackberry Crostata with Toasted Almonds
Our menu was limited not only by the vegetarian theme, but by timing. Chef Brana is dedicated to local sourcing, but with our upside-down seasons, there is not much growing in South Florida right now other than mangoes, lychees and sweat rings. As a result, much of our menu was the product of a field trip he took up to farms in Central Florida.
We started simply, with a salad of delicate dark green oak lettuce, plated with a puddle of a thick, orange-hued carrot vinaigrette. Nestled beneath the leaves was a cluster of slivered, lightly pickled green tomatoes, providing an extra dose of tartness.
Though the primary component of this dish were the planks of fresh juicy watermelon, I suspect the watermelon radishes Chef Brana found up in Central Florida were the inspiration. So named for their greenish-white exterior which hides a vibrant pink-red center, these radishes sometimes have a potently peppery kick. These were not quite so feisty, but provided a nice snap and freshness against the fruit, which was tugged in both sweet and savory directions by dabs of a (honeyed?) miso dressing. Batons of fennel and its fuzzy fronds, as well as some aromatic micro basil, provided complementary herbal notes.