Parity on the Plate
Healthy, sustainable and veg-centric menus take root in STL.
The subtle glide into unhealthy eating patterns catches many of us off guard. It’s just so easy, especially at restaurants, to make choices based on taste without a thought to the long-term consequences—both for our waistlines and our world. It used to be that the alternative, a conscious approach to dining out, required some digging.
But the owners of four new local restaurants say we’ve moved past the point where healthy, sustainable and veg-centric menus are anomalies. In fact, the approach is gaining so much traction that customers can glide in the opposite direction, toward positive patterns—and enjoy every dish along the way.
“I think the term ‘health food’ has gotten a bad rap,” says Christina McHugh, co-founder of The Nest, a family-friendly café in Ladue, with several glutenfree options, as well as a healthful fresh juice and smoothie lineup (we recommend the Red Goddess Juice, featuring apple, carrot, beet, cucumber and ginger). “Just because something is good for your body doesn’t mean it isn’t delicious.” She finds there’s a new openness toward the idea of healthy eating, but “there’s still a certain stigma that associates it with under-eating, dieting or ‘going without.’ This is so not the case.”
At Seedz Café, a raw vegan eatery in U City, Cara Moon Schloss agrees that “nourishing places to eat” are in demand precisely because they offer a sense of control; customers are stoked to make food choices that fill the stomach and the spirit. With that in mind, when she and co-owner Montgomery Gralnick were planning a menu featuring clever, healthful items like the Rawvioli (raw, organic beets sliced thin, marinated and filled with vegan macadamia and pine nut pesto), they thought about “our relationships with our community, our relationships and appreciation of the local farmers, the hands that will prepare the meals, the life in our food and the life in our café.”
If it sounds like Schloss put big pressure on her menu, she’s not alone. McHugh focused The Nest’s “food-losophy” around clean, pure, fresh, local ingredients in dishes like the Egg and Bacon Bunny for kids that “put a smile on your face.” And at Nathalie’s, an upscale Central West End haunt with a farmto-table concept, owned by Nathalie Pettus of Overlook Farm in Clarksville, their goal is more than sustaining the status quo; it’s “building guests’ souls.” Case in point: the Crispy Sesame Quinoa Crab Cake, a personal favorite of the chef, made with gluten-free bread crumbs and served with avocado-grapefruit salad and an oil-free ginger-citrus vinaigrette.
These restaurateurs balk at calling the proliferation of alternative menus a trend. “Vegetarian and veganism have been growing steadily over the past few decades,” points out Chi “Bay” Tran of Tree House, a meat-free restaurant on South Grand inspired by global cuisines. Likewise, gluten-free dining is spiking, thanks to people like McHugh, whose own chronic inflammation and gluten allergy prompted a diet change that “has literally saved my life.” As she points out, no one wants to return to previous eating patterns and stop feeling good.
The big question in naysayers’ minds, of course, is, “Can it really taste good?” These restaurants build a strong case. McHugh starts a rundown of tempting dishes with the gluten-free chicken and waffles served at The Nest: “The sage butter on the waffle perfectly walks that tightrope of sweet versus savory.” Two of Tree House’s most popular items are the jambalaya with house-smoked “sausage,” and sliders with shiitake mushroom tempura and barbecue sauce. Seedz weaves together sprouted pizza crust with roasted organic vegetables, vegan cheese and house-made tomato sauce. And no one neglects dessert. At Nathalie’s, there’s a gluten-free chocolate cake with almonds and oranges, or a selection of sorbets made with cherries and peaches from the Clarksville orchards.
After all, says McHugh, “Healthful eating is a lifestyle choice that increases your energy, balances out your body and still leaves plenty of room for those days when you just want to eat cookies and cupcakes—which we have as well.”
Photo credit: Christopher Gibbons