Sufferers of phantom gluten intolerance, and those with legitimate celiac disease, had cause for excitement this fall when a New York-based restaurant landed in the Gold Coast promising to feed them free of that maligned mixture of proteins. The Little Beet Table is the formal offspring of a small fast-casual chain slinging healthy, vegetable-dominant food for people with any number of the usual assortment of dietary restrictions that can make the act of eating a lot of tedious work.
The more evolved concept is promising: letting meat play a secondary role, putting the emphasis on the creative presentation of verdure. We've seen some of this already with Jason Vincent's menu at Giant and at the new Bad Hunter from Heisler Hospitality, and in general it's a good thing. We should all eat more plant life.
It's particularly exciting in the hands of someone like Vincent, whose flavors can make you taste familiar vegetables in a way you never have before. When one regards the menu of the Little Beet Table for the first time, it's possible to summon some anticipation that it might perform similarly. A section of eight vegetarian dishes headlines small plates, salads, and mains, where the meat begins to creep in.
Cauliflower seems to be a vegetal panacea for the low-carb, gluten-free set, and with good reason. It's a great vegetable, delicious in so many ways, which is why Little Beet Table's version is so perplexing. They seemed to have found the one unappealing method of preparing the lovable crucifer: hummus posing as Vegenaise. Showered with popcorn and pepitas and served with thick wedges of bread, it's a grayish-tan slick of something you'd take a wide berth from if you saw it on the sidewalk.
It also illustrates one of two fatal flaws across LBT's menu: portion sizes are way too big, making even the best dishes intolerable by the halfway point. But the kitchen compounds that problem with a seemingly hostile resistance to seasoning, issuing a mound of overcooked and undercaramelized brussels sprouts with barely a hint of the lemon gremolata or sea salt it was said to contain. Same goes for three jumbo sweet-potato halves that seem to have escaped any seasoning whatsoever. Even the most seemingly complicated dish on the menu, a kabocha squash soup, arrives without any taste of the ginger and miso that might separate it from baby food. At least a large plate of broccoli draped with a carrot remoulade carries a hint of heat, and a pea guacamole is sweet enough. But if you plan to let vegetables stand on their own, they'd better be perfect. These are not.
That's what makes the enormous, virtually undressed arugula salad such a burden, and that's setting aside the piece of packing cardboard I found hidden within. That's echoed in the roasted shrimp and romaine, which forced me to hunt like a starving squirrel for the promised quinoa and raisins. And how does one make a classic chicken Caesar salad more veg-forward without taking away the protein surge of boneless, skinless chicken breast folks are accustomed to? Take a whole split head of grilled romaine and sprinkle it with hard, undercooked chickpeas. Chickpea Caesar—sounds like chicken, I guess.
Things improve only marginally among small plates and mains. A wild shrimp curry with more of those undercooked garbanzos tastes like it's haunted by the ghost of a masala. Short cavatelli are surprisingly firm and well made, and their dull tomato sauce is perhaps accidentally boosted by sheep's milk feta. The roasted chicken is a juicy if workmanlike effort, and while a black sea bass cooked in parchment with parsley jus is moist and crispy, you'll likely destroy it following the needlessly aggravating process of removing it from its paper prison.
Perhaps the most absurd thing in this comedy of errors is a trio of tacos bulging with chipotle pork carnitas, apple kimchi, squash, black beans, and avocado crema. The most expert hands would be hard-pressed to turn this combination into a reasonable bite of food. It's as if the person who conceived it had never experienced a taco before.
But the cruelest joke of all is that the only time salt makes an entrance at the Little Beet Table is at dessert, in the form of a salted chocolate cookie crumbled over a sundae, which resembles a toddler's modeling project built with chocolate mousse and Grinch-colored mint ice cream. If you've made it this far you deserve it.
Among the crass overgeneralizations about healthful dining that come true at Little Beet is that restaurants that cater to people looking for a healthy meal don't put much thought into the drinks menu, which explains feeble cocktails like the whiskey-flavored water I expected to be a manhattan, or the margarita that could've been poured from the Skinnygirl profile.
Another canard is that people who care about eating healthier don't know how to cook—and won't know any better. And if health is a primary focus, everything else, like aesthetics, flavor, and joy, aren't really important. Maybe the folks behind the Little Beet Table do believe those things, but I don't know many diners who do. v