Gone Vegan

Fredericksburg’s new Legume Kitchen and Bar offers a healthy plant-based menu without the green hype. 

Legume Kitchen & Bar is not your daddy’s vegetarian restaurant, especially if your daddy came up during the Age of Aquarius. No psychedelic tapestries or bulletin board bristling with tear-away ads for crystals, healing therapies or in-home doulas. The walls, painted a handsome palette of earth tones, are cleanly adorned with local artwork. During a recent meal, instead of sitar music, speakers piped in a pleasant playlist of blues, soul and pop. The smell was more roasted garlic than patchouli oil. 

Nor does this downtown Fredericksburg restaurant, which celebrated its first anniversary in October, follow the formula of many of today’s vegan restaurants, those impossibly perky spots where raw food is served up with sides of nutritional science and self-righteousness. Both categories of eatery strike me as strident, which, for non-vegetarians can seem intimidating and alienating.

Legume is different. Even though vegetables command center stage—no beef, pork, chicken or lamb, only a handful of seafood dishes—and even though half the dishes are either vegan or gluten-free, nowhere does the restaurant bill itself as vegetarian or vegan or pescatarian. The establishment’s name offers the only hint at what’s on the menu. 

Chef Raymond Renault, who developed the concept and co-owns Legume with his wife, Jessica, eschews labels. And they’re both lifelong meat eaters. So why open a restaurant that doesn’t serve meat? “I became aware of people requesting vegan and vegetarian dishes almost daily,” says Renault, also head chef and owner of La Petite Auberge, the popular Fredericksburg establishment started in 1981 by his French-born father. “I wanted to open a place with a totally different feel than La Petite Auberge. People today have more sophisticated palates. They’re more educated about what they put into their bodies. We thought a plant-based menu would be a cool focus for a new business. There’s nothing like it in the area.” 

I may be Legume’s target customer—a middle-aged omnivore who loves meat but tries to eat less of it. Today, I will eat only plants. Though the seafood dishes—mustard-dill crusted salmon; seafood gnocchi; mac and cheese with lobster and shrimp; blackened mahi mahi—are tempting, I want to see how well the kitchen captures and holds this carnivore’s attention. 

I start with a plate of crispy eggplant, sliced and prepared like gourmet French fries. “Everybody loves that appetizer,” my waiter said. One bite, and I understand why. Drizzled in spicy honey and sprinkled with rosemary, the eggplant sticks come with a whipped goat-cheese dip that perfectly complements their sweet-and-salty flavors. The combination of crispy outside and melt-in-your-mouth center makes this finger food even more addictive. 

Legume is a seasonal, food-focused restaurant. Only days before my early October visit, Renault, along with Legume chef Justin Cunningham, who most recently ran the kitchen at Fredericksburg’s Spencer Devon Brewery, introduced a fall menu. One of the new offerings was a butternut squash risotto (gluten-free) with a pomegranate molasses. Sprinkled with glistening pomegranate arils and topped with an edible orchid blossom, the dish was lovely to look at—even better to taste. Like the best risottos, this one was served fresh and hot. The squash chunks weren’t overcooked, giving a subtle bite that, along with the pomegranate seeds, nicely contrasted the otherwise creamy dish. The pomegranate molasses—a fragrant, potent reduction—added the right amount of tartness.

I ordered another new dish, herbed ricotta cannelloni on stewed bell peppers with lemon butter sauce made without butter, ricotta cheese or traditional pasta. Cooking is already a kind of alchemy, even more so when you’re converting an age-old favorite like this one into a vegan dish that can compete with today’s top restaurants. “Working without animal proteins forces you to do research,” Renault explains with an almost diabolical glee. Substituting olive oil for butter was easy enough, but finding an alternative stuffing posed a tougher challenge. After much trial and error, the chefs perfected an almond-based “ricotta.” After soaking overnight, the nuts are ground, wrapped in cheesecloth and drained for eight hours. “Once you add herbs, lemon zest and garlic, it’s almost identical to ricotta.” Even better, I would argue, since the vegan filling wasn’t quite as mushy as the cheese. The pasta, too, made with tofu instead of eggs, was thinner and seemed more refined.  

Both chefs seem energized by such challenges. Greeting patrons during a cooking break, Cunningham stops by my table and shares one of his newfound passions—aquafaba, a recently coined word meaning “bean water,” or the liquid leftover from cooked chickpeas. “Most people dump it down the sink,” he says, even though aquafaba’s starches, proteins and other soluble plant solids make it an excellent egg white substitute. Cunningham whips, emulsifies, foams and gelatinizes it for use in things like mayonnaise, cookies and meringue. Cooking under these new constraints “brings out a lot of creativity,” Cunningham says.

The constraints and creativity are all in the service of healthier eating—minus the proselytizing. The closest thing to a message you’ll find at Legume is a quote by the 18th century French epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin painted artfully on a wall in the main dining room: “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are.” LegumeRestaurant.com

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