Age sixteen was a turning point for me: I had finally started to blossom. Not like the other girls my age — but rather my spiral permed bangs were growing out and I had discovered hyper color tshirts. My plastic, octagon-shaped, white glasses with smurfs emblazoned on each side had been replaced with clear, octagon-shaped glasses that had an off-putting yellowing tint, and stone washed jeans were in style. Given those recent developments, I decided that this period in my life was the perfect time to mingle with other teens at the 16+ “dance clubs” in random suburban strip malls. It was my friend Aimee’s idea, and since she was super hot and naturally tan, I thought we were both going to have an equally good time “clubbing”. Obviously I was wrong. To start off, I was the only person wearing Hammer pants.

Within a few seconds of our arrival a boy with a bowl cut (that’s right…) appeared through the green and pink tinted smoke machine exhaust and asked Aimee to dance. She was flattered (naturally), and wanting to pass on some of her good fortune to others, promised to dance with him only if his friend danced with me. I watched in nervous anticipation as the two boys — both in oversized t-shirts and white baseball caps — conferred on the offer.  Finally they came back with a solid decision:  “no deal”.  I think she danced with him anyways. 

I can remember that feeling vividly as it is the same one I used to get every time I walked into a chef-y restaurant with Daniel. He is the super hot, meat eating gentleman with a “sophisticated palate” who will most likely get the wine pairing. And I am the vegetarian who will probably order a soda with my meal. No one wants to dance with me. 

I can see the disdainful look on the waiter’s face when he takes my order.  I know that he is going back to the kitchen to confer with the chef, each present their version of a heavy eye roll, and then prepare one of two tasting menus for the “a-hole at table 2”: I will either receive 10 dishes of beets in varying forms, or I will get the same tasting menu as Daniel, but the kitchen will simply remove the bacon.  I actually dont really like beets, and the second option really sucks…but as a vegetarian at a fancy restaurant, I know that I should feel lucky I am even allowed in the place. So I eat what I’m given.  The meal is usually finished with a copy of the meat tasting menu that I can take home with me. 

This has been my experience at many chef-y restaurants. Given this track record, I tend to show up at these joints without much expectation. But sometimes, there are exceptions to the rule. And as of late, Ive been experiencing many exceptions.  Such was the case when we dropped into Etxebarri during our recent visit to Spain. Now normally, I choose not to do a foodie-style photo breakdown of the meal… But by God, that chef’s mother must have been a vegetarian — Because he treated me like I was really loved. Each dish was simple, carefully thought out and completely meat and fish free. Foodie-style photo breakdown is below. 

Mushrooms (Hygrophorus Maruolus) at Etxebarri

Now, despite my job (where I document food), anyone who knows me knows that I would prefer a huge bowl of spaghetti with tomato sauce eaten in sweatpants on the couch over a 10-course tasting menu any day. But I also know that dinner at one of these restaurants is an art form, and being able to experience it is something that makes me very lucky. When you take in a painting, you want to understand what the artist was thinking, what was behind each piece. The same happens when you see a beautiful and thoughtfully created dish. And when someone presents me with produce from their chef’s own garden, hand picks and de-shells each individual pea, and (what I can only assume is) kisses it before putting it onto my plate… you take notice. The dishes at Etxebarri were pure examples of how good each main element (a mushroom, a green bean, a pepper) could be,  and each made me kick myself that I didnt like vegetables until last year. It was so good that Daniel (you know, that popular meat eater from the beginning of the post) even recommended one of our meat loving friends to pose as a vegetarian when coming to Etxebarri for an upcoming meal. 

To be fair, there are a handful of restaurants Ive visited where I was humbled and honored by their veggie tasting menu in the past couple years (Herb Farm, McCradys, Michel Bras to name a few). But those experiences were also dotted with the other, not-so-veggie friendly meals. In my opinion, being a good chef means you are able to make a great dish out of any ingredient — be it meat, vegetable, grain or cheese. At the very least, you should look at each item as a challenge.  So, to scoff at having a vegetarian customer is pretty unfortunate. Luckily, I think more and more restaurants are starting to be in agreement with me on that one.

In the past 3 months, Daniel has found himself eating off of my plate, as the menus at restaurants across Europe have been making non-meat dishes to envy. These are extremely well know and reputable places where, in many cases, over 60% of the menu is vegetarian in the first place.  I would list off these restaurants here, but that would make me sound obnoxious. So, if you’re a vegetarian and looking to be treated with the same care bestowed upon the meat eaters, email me and Ill tell ya’ where to go.  

The good news is Meat, in many cases, is slowly becoming something special again — meaning it doesn’t have to be in every dish and doesnt have to be eaten every day. Consequently, vegetables are becoming special… which means, when it comes to eating at a fancy restaurant, I’m starting to feel special too.