'Tis not the meat, but 'tis the appetite / makes eating a delight
-- Sir John Suckling
France boasts significant agricultural output, with farmers' markets bursting with gorgeous plant-based bounty. Yet "In France, probably less than 1 percent of the population is vegetarian," observes Mark Collins, chef at the South Side's Le Pommier Bistro Français. "It's just not part of the culture."
In translating French cuisine for American dining habits, however, Collins has embraced the challenge of adapting staple dishes to New World dietary concerns. "I like to take an intrinsically meat dish, like boeuf bourguignonne, and turn it into a meatless dish that anyone, vegetarian or not, will enjoy."
Collins is motivated in part by America's own distinctive gastronomic habits. "This country consumes way too much meat," Collins says. "People don't need 10 to 12 ounces of meat in a portion, and I try to address that.
"My wife's younger brother is vegan, and at one point, he was trying to push us all in that direction, but that's a hard argument to make to most people. It's much easier to just convince people to eat less meat."
For instance, Collins' boeuf bourguignonne begins by substituting seitan (wheat gluten) for beef. The seitan, which has a firm, chewy texture not unlike meat, is stewed in red wine and vegetable stock flavored with mushrooms and root vegetables, then goosed with liquid hickory smoke and soy-based "bacon." The resulting dish is hearty and comforting -- qualities the average diner may not expect of a meatless entrée.
Also on Le Pommier's meat-free roster are socca crêpes: Made with chickpea flour, the crêpes are stuffed with Boursin cheese, served with mushroom ragout and red onion confit, and topped with fried leeks. Collins' version of the traditionally multiple-meats cassoulet uses a trio of legumes, fennel-flavored seitan sausage and nuts, instead of breadcrumbs baked on the top. Combined, these ingredients allow Collins to omit even the butter and cheese. Sacre bleu!
Le Pommier's daily menu, posted online, always features one vegetarian entrée, but Chef Collins encourages diners to phone ahead if they'd like a specific dish adapted for them.
Occasionally, the substitutions are almost too successful. Collins explains: "We've had people send dishes back to the kitchen insisting that they had ordered vegetarian. I consider that the ultimate compliment."
2104 East Carson St., South Side. 412-431-1901