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Modern Veggie

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If I were a cucumber, I'd want to die in Kevin Sousa's Bigelow Grille kitchen, squeezed into a habañero-infused vivid green gazpacho and reunited with my erstwhile vine-neighbor, now a tiny scoop of sorbet.

Let's face it -- life can be a challenge for local vegetables hoping to make a mark on the culinary scene. When dining out, "vegetarian" too often means meatless pizza, pasta or salad. Worthy dishes all, but where's the zing?

Contemplating an all-veggie outing means shaking off memories of youthful dabbles in healthy eating: stodgy, earnest meals of lentil loaf and slabs of tofu, dismal-looking offerings that ran the gamut from beige to muddy brown.

Forget meat-free asceticism, poorly prepared legumes and over-chilled bowls of iceberg lettuce. Imagine a top-notch, multi-course dining experience marked by innovative techniques, surprising flavor pairings and sublime presentation that, just coincidentally, happens to be vegetarian.

Sousa recently presented his second vegetarian spectacular at Bigelow Grille: seven courses, plus an amuse bouche and an intermezzo -- all washed down with the greatest veggie of them all, nine handcrafted beers from the East End Brewing Company. The chef that transformed Pittsburgh's signature meat-and-potatoes dish into pierogie Dippin' Dots can make a plate of vegetables into high art -- or, at the very least, something to exclaim over.

It takes a sense of humor to make a "lobster" roll out of lobster mushrooms, and some imagination to make the diced shrooms, corn, tomatoes and avocado hang together with a mayo made from tofu and huitalacoche (corn fungus).

If there must be some ersatz stand-in for meat, then please let the results be delightful. For Sousa's "vegetable sushi" course, sliced porcini mushrooms replaced the fish; these sat atop a strip of tempeh "tamago" (in lieu of egg), and were garnished with cantaloupe "roe" (teeny balls of gelled cantaloupe puree). Wasabi fondue, vanilla soy sauce, fried pickled ginger -- who even notices meat is missing?

Now I'd rather eat a fresh spring roll filled with spicy seitan (a meat substitute made of wheat gluten, and not helped by its "satan" pronunciation) served here than any of the more traditional preparations stuffed with lifeless tofu or a rubbery shrimp.

Chef Sousa promises more special veggie dinners in the future. (Get on the mailing list at www.bigelowgrille.com.) I bet the local vegetables are as aquiver as I am to discover what new transformation awaits them.

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