As the plant-forward dining push grows, American restaurants are taking cues from the way much of the world has been eating for centuries, putting produce front and center and cutting back on animal proteins. These three fast casuals exemplify that trend.
Chef Pierre Thiam, who grew up in Senegal, is on a mission to share his West African food culture through his restaurant, Teranga, which opened this year in New York City. The build-your-own bowl concept is “a good way to introduce people to unusual ingredients,” Thiam says. “You start with a grain, then add vegetables, garnishes and small amounts of Senegalese chicken or Moroccan-spiced salmon. It’s less scary to build your own than be presented with an unfamiliar finished dish.”
In the process, guests are naturally going in a plant-forward direction and getting acquainted with new ingredients. That includes fonio, a sustainable grain grown in West Africa, which is one of the base options. Fonio is a smaller version of millet that looks like couscous but is a protein-rich, quick-cooking whole grain. Liberian red rice and cassava couscous are other base choices.
Sweet potato and black-eyed pea stew, collard greens, okra, melon seed stew and spicy fried plantains are some of the veggie choices, and a selection of sauces—peanut, spiced tomato broth and caramelized onions and lime confit—round out the options.
Sweetgreen is a destination for produce-centric bowls highlighting seasonal, sustainable ingredients. “We give people a produce-based alternative, sourcing from over 300 local farms and changing the menu seasonally—twice over the summer,” says Michael Stebner, director of culinary experience. Those menu items may vary among the chain’s 96 locations, depending on what’s coming into the market in California versus Chicago, for instance.
“Celebrating the source” and “making the veggies the star” are what drive Sweetgreen’s menu innovation, says Stebner, who is continually inspired by cuisines, such as Southeast Asian and Japanese, where produce is at the center of the plate. “We just finished a bowl for our Houston market that is a play on Vietnamese nuoc cham flavors and has a dressing based just on fish sauce, lime juice and aromatics—no oil,” he says.
The Shroomami bowl has a Japanese accent, featuring wild rice, shredded kale, raw beets, cucumbers, basil, spicy sunflower seeds, roasted sesame tofu and a warm portobello mix tossed with a Japanese-flavored dressing made with miso, sesame, ginger and chili.
The brand’s Latin-inspired Elote Bowl is a popular summer specialty, but Stebner also taps ideas from the Middle East when developing seasonal bowls. In the works is a warm Roasted Carrot and Sumac version. Several bowls are listed with just the vegetarian ingredients, giving the option to add a protein for an extra cost.
Roti Modern Mediterranean
Israeli cuisine is the heart of the menu at Roti Modern Mediterranean, says Molly McGrath, chef and culinary director for the concept. Roti was one of the first fast casuals to mainstream Israeli couscous as a grain base for its bowls, and its topping choices, including hummus, pickled onions, falafel and dilled yogurt, also have Israeli roots, she says. “Ten years ago, we were ahead of the curve with Israeli ingredients,” she adds. “But Roti does not want to be classified as a falafel shop.”
Toward that end, warm Moroccan spices such as cinnamon, cumin, cardamom and cloves are blended into the proprietary rubs for chicken and steak, and schug, a hot Yemenite sauce, is one of the most popular add-ons, McGrath says. Additionally, a wide selection of roasted and fresh vegetables are on hand to complete the chain’s bowls and wraps. “You can’t get to the end of the line without creating a Mediterranean-style plant-forward dish,” she says.