I admit it: being a meat eater, I never gave vegan and vegetarian restaurants a fair shake, at least until I visited Garden Grille. Not only was the food delicious and adventurous, but I was enlightened by the fact that vegetables can be the stars of any entree. Nobody knows this better than Garden Grille’s new chef, Alex Buck. We discussed how Alex plans his autumn dishes, what drives his passion for vegetarian cooking and why he’s such a stickler for presentation.
Garden Grille is your first foray into a fully dedicated vegetarian kitchen. How’s that been for you?
It was a big transition for me since I’ve always been a meat eater (and cooker). It’s challenged me to think creatively with the menu because, not only are we vegan and vegetarian, but we’re also a kosher restaurant. Our guests experience vegetables as the main component of the entree.
My favorite aspect is visiting the farmer’s markets, seeing what’s available and working from there. The other day I picked up fresh kohlrabi and prepared a nice slaw with bulgur wheat corncakes. When you limit your options, it forces you to be more creative.
What’s your process for creating a new dish?
When I develop or tweak a dish, I think of more than just the taste – mouth texture, hot-to-cold differences and striking colors. I always love when something has a little crunch, or when spicy clashes with a cold, pickled ingredient. One dish I changed a bit is the stir-fry bowl. It was pretty straightforward before, so I decided to add two things: a carrot-habanero sauce, which gives the dish a beautiful yellow-orange color, and pickled beets to top it off. So now you have a little sweetness, a little spice and a more visually-appealing presentation.
What’s the most important thing about running a kitchen?
Consistency is the biggest thing for me. I believe it’s only fair for people to experience dishes with a consistent level of quality. It needs to look and taste the same every time it leaves the kitchen. I’m also a stickler for plating. I like to present dishes in a visually appetizing way. If the spoon swipe on the plate isn’t perfect or something looks out of place, I have to fix it.
Are there any exciting additions to the menu for the fall season?
The dishes we’ve been running were mostly designed by the previous chef, but I’m working on a new fall menu and gathering ideas from the staff. Autumn is an amazing season. I want to do cool plays on hearty fall dishes. I was thinking about making a Brussels sprouts salad with apple chutney. I would fry the Brussels sprouts crispy and toss them in a roasted shallot vinaigrette. For the chutney, I would use a local cider and picked fennel. I’m also looking to do stuffed delicata squash with plantain mash and butternut squash lasagna layered with cashew cheese.
How do you make vegetarian and vegan dishes appealing to different palates?
My biggest drive is to give our guests – who usually can’t enjoy classic, meat-based dishes due to dietary restrictions – every possible flavor experience. I want to bring the experience of a meat-based dish to a vegetarian menu, playing with ingredients like seitan, tempeh and tofu. A good example that Garden Grille nailed before I started is the Reuben. We do it with shaved seitan that is dyed with beet juice to make it look like corned beef. We season it with fennel and celery seed (much like how you would typically enjoy a Reuben).
Can you describe one idea you’ve been toying with for the new menu?
Right now we have a mezze platter that’s really popular, so I had an idea of creating a build-your-own platter on the menu, too. It would be like a vegan-style charcuterie experience with smoked vegan sausage, mushroom pate and cheese spreads made from cashews and Brazilian nuts.
727 East Avenue, Pawtucket