My vegan friend Leah keeps a picture on her phone to remind her of the dark days. It shows a white plate with a massive, unadorned green head of broccoli that she was served at a local steakhouse chain. She hasn’t forgotten the slight.

But the reason she was prompted to show me the offending brassica was a happy occasion. She’d just been served three stellar plant-based courses at Townsend (2121 Walnut St.), , highlighted by a grilled celery root “steak” infused with flavor sous-vide, sauced with mushroom jus that had as much depth as any veal demi-glace.

I thought it was a good test to see if this kitchen better known for meaty French dishes like roast duck and sweetbreads could cook something vegan off-menu with a couple days’ notice. (Calling ahead is always a good idea). But for my dedicated vegan guest, this thoughtful, labor-intensive meal represented a genuine milestone in the fight for plant-based eaters to be seen and embraced by the restaurant industry at large.

The vegan celery root "steak" entree at restaurant Townsend in the Rittenhouse Sq. neighborhood Feb. 17, 2020.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
The vegan celery root "steak" entree at restaurant Townsend in the Rittenhouse Sq. neighborhood Feb. 17, 2020.

We’ve rightfully celebrated the achievements of Philly’s nationally renowned vegan culinary community, from Vedge and to , , , and (owned by chef Rachel Klein, daughter of The Inquirer’s Michael Klein.) But the success of those pioneers has had a powerful ripple effect judging by the energy now being devoted to plant-based cooking in mainstream restaurants catering to an omnivorous crowd. If you’re a top restaurant of any sort in Philly in 2020, serious vegetable chops are now the expectation.

My recent dining guide tipped a carrot to several vegetarian favorites — the broccoli tabbouleh at (220 S. 17th St.); the grand mezze at (800 Mifflin St.); the , the cauliflower tacos with almond-morita salsa at (2636 Ann St.) But I also reached out to several chefs from my current Top 25 restaurants and beyond to hear what they’re most excited about cooking right now for those craving a plant-based meal.

No tired veggie-pasta clichés, I said. But the prodding wasn’t necessary. Between the flavor-building trends of live-fire cooking, fermentation, and careful sourcing of seasonal vegetables, these chefs are genuinely thrilled by the challenge of drawing culinary satisfaction from produce and plant-based fats.

Sweet Potato Power

Smoked sweet potato slices are crusted with ground sweet potato "chorizo" seasoned with spice, one of several inventive vegan-friendly dishes created by the chefs at Cadence.
Jon Nodler
Smoked sweet potato slices are crusted with ground sweet potato "chorizo" seasoned with spice, one of several inventive vegan-friendly dishes created by the chefs at Cadence.

Sweet potato “chorizo” at 7073彩票登录 (161 W Girard Ave.): This seasonal BYOB is always bursting with vegan options. Still, the trio of chefs here have done things to sweet potatoes I never expected, smoking them whole in the live-fire hearth, then crusting the fleshy wedges with a sweet potato “chorizo.” Made from scraps that are dehydrated and ground with chili oil and seasonings for an ‘Nduja-like paste, it adds spice, tang, and texture to an incredibly dynamic dish.

A sweet potato-kimchi gratin with soy glaze at Vernick Food & Drink is one of the latest creations from chef Greg Vernick, who's begun eating vegan two days a week.
A sweet potato-kimchi gratin with soy glaze at Vernick Food & Drink is one of the latest creations from chef Greg Vernick, who's begun eating vegan two days a week.

Sweet potato-kimchi gratin at (2031 Walnut St.): Chef Greg Vernick, who’s gone plant-based himself two days a week, can effortlessly veggie-flex with slow-roasted cabbage topped with mole at Vernick Fish or the best-selling mushroom-avocado grain bowl at Vernick Coffee Bar7073彩票登录. His new vegan crush at the four-bell flagship on Walnut Street is a sweet potato-kimchi gratin with pear butter and a soy glaze.

Excelling at Eggplant

Japanese eggplant is stir-fried with miso paste, basil, and chilies at Kalaya.
Chutatip Nok Suntaranon
Japanese eggplant is stir-fried with miso paste, basil, and chilies at Kalaya.

Thai eggplant at (764 S 9th St.): Much of the Thai cuisine at Kalaya relies on fish sauce and fermented seafood paste for depth. But chef Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon cooks some fabulous vegan-friendly dishes, too, including her famous blue tapioca dumplings (sakoo sai hed) stuffed with mushrooms and peanuts, and stir-fried Japanese eggplants marinated in miso, bean paste, basil, and chilies that take on additional savor when singed in Kalaya’s smoking-hot wok.

Roasted eggplant at Zahav (237 St James Pl.): CookNSolo restaurants have always offered veg-forward expressions of modern Israeli cuisine. So while that table of carnivores beside you is oohing over their smoked lamb shoulder, Zahav can throw down a worthy vegan centerpiece, too. These days, it’s a whole eggplant, sliced accordion-style like a Hasselback potato, then roasted over coals and fanned atop freekeh, lentils, and pistachios with fresh mangos tossed in amba sauce.

Bold Brassicas, Rad Roots

The colorful heirloom cauliflower carpaccio at Andiario is served with vegan bagna cauda.
Anthony Andiario
The colorful heirloom cauliflower carpaccio at Andiario is served with vegan bagna cauda.

Cauliflower crudo at (106 W. Gay St., West Chester): Cauliflower is the sturdy brassica of choice when it comes to grilling for a veggie steak. Anthony Andiario taps the raw appeal of his heirloom varieties by serving a colorful mosaic of cauliflower carpaccio drizzled with vegan bagna cauda. Andiario also takes the cabbage trend (yes, that’s a thing) to the next level by wood-roasting an heirloom flat Dutch cabbage in the fire, peeling its charred layers back, then topping it with a green onion relish spiked with fresh horseradish, vinegar, and hemp-seed oil.

Roasted cauliflower with curry at Hearthside7073彩票登录 (801 Haddon Ave., Collingswood): Live fire is the key to much of the menu at South Jersey’s hottest restaurant, but the vivid sauce and spices here are the keys — a house-made coconut milk Thai curry and dusting of fresh za’atar — to take this char-roasted head of cauliflower to centerpiece status.

The cauliflower steak at Alpen Rose is grilled over a wood hearth.
Schulson Collective
The cauliflower steak at Alpen Rose is grilled over a wood hearth.

Cauliflower steak at Alpen Rose (116 S. 13th St.): When it is 7073彩票登录time for a cauliflower “steak,” Philly’s best boutique chophouse knows what to do, roasting it over the hardwood grill, then topping it off with golden raisins, almonds, and bread crumbs. (If you’re dairy-averse, the usual crème fra?che garnish can be subbed with an agave-lemon-olive oil dressing).

Grilled kale hearts with fermented chicories is served as a vegan option at Laurel with a chicory crumble sauce Perigordine made with Madeira and truffles.
Nicholas Elmi
Grilled kale hearts with fermented chicories is served as a vegan option at Laurel with a chicory crumble sauce Perigordine made with Madeira and truffles.

Grilled kale heart at Laurel 7073彩票登录(1617 E. Passyunk Ave.): Dense kale hearts, not salad greens, are at the core of this tasting menu gem, confited tender then grilled over Binchotan coals. Chef Nicholas Elmi’s elaborate treatment of seasonal chicories give the dish layered depth. Castelfranco radicchio gets fermented for two weeks before being grilled, while Tardivo radicchio is grilled, and other chicories are turned to a “crumble.” A vegan Perigordine sauce finished with Madeira and truffles lends it that luxurious French sheen.

Bolero carrot tartare, seasoned with an Asian vinaigrette and topped with crispy rice seaweed crackers, is one of the vegan-friendly dishes at Serpico.
Gab Bonghi / Starr Restaurants
Bolero carrot tartare, seasoned with an Asian vinaigrette and topped with crispy rice seaweed crackers, is one of the vegan-friendly dishes at Serpico.

Bolero carrot tartare at (604 South St.): Precious end-of-season carrots from Root Mass Farms get the tartare treatment, but true to chef Peter Serpico’s lapidary ways, this is no simple mince. The carrots are steamed, partially dehydrated, cut to uniform bits, then partially rehydrated in a vacu-sealed bag to achieve ideal texture. It’s all tossed with a gingery soy vinaigrette, then topped with rice-encrusted seaweed crackers showered with sliced myoga ginger.

Mushroom Marvels

Shaved raw trumpet mushrooms hide the dark, sweet-and-sour complexity of a mushroom caponata at Res Ipsa.
Michael Vincent Ferreri
Shaved raw trumpet mushrooms hide the dark, sweet-and-sour complexity of a mushroom caponata at Res Ipsa.

Mushroom caponata at Res Ipsa (2218 Walnut St.): Don’t let the blank canvas fool you. Beneath the minimalist look and delicate snap of those shaved raw Royal Trumpets, chef Michael Vincent Ferreri hides a dark, tart, and intricately rendered mushroom version of sweet-and-sour caponata. Most commonly made with eggplant, raisins, and capers, Ferreri often makes this Sicilian dish with other in-season vegetables, like artichokes. His winter rendition blends multiple kinds of mushrooms — pickled, grilled, steeped to stock, agrodolce — with cocoa, vinegar, Marsala, rosemary oil, and pomegranate for a tart kiss. A final touch of pureed bread soaked with concentrated oat milk binds it all together with a hint of richness. (The standard addition of honey can be substituted.)

White Elf mushrooms over sunchokes at (1355 N. Front St.): Meaty , also known as Nebrodinis, are marinated with herbs and olive oil before they’re marked on this Fishtown grill, then polka-dotted with black garlic-citrus puree. It’s the pairing with sunchokes, though, that Mulherin’s new chef, James Burke, uses to give this dish extra earthy depth, the soft mash of sunchokes crackling with crispy bits of deep-fried skin that seems to draw even more umami from these already-intense mushrooms.

Bar Stars from beyond the Top 25

Fried Buffalo jackfruit hoagie is one of the popular vegan items at American Sardine Bar.
Doreen DeMarco
Fried Buffalo jackfruit hoagie is one of the popular vegan items at American Sardine Bar.

7073彩票登录 Philly’s gastropubs have long led the charge in normalizing vegan options on mainstream menus, from the smoked coconut club sandwich at (2331 E. Cumberland St.) to the at (501 N. 13th St.) and the seitan wings at recently renovated (937 E. Passyunk Ave.), where the vegan meatball banh mi is my current favorite item.

Few bar chefs, though, give as much consistent attention to creative vegan options as much as Doreen DeMarco, who oversees three local pubs. At (1509 Mifflin St.), she gives an American take on jackfruit, an ingredient often used in the nearby Indonesian restaurants. She marinates chunks of the meaty tropical fruit in Buffalo sauce and then fries them in seasoned breading for a hoagie roll with lettuce and vegan ranch. She uses crab cakes as inspiration for a version made with artichokes and faba-naise at (1939 S. Bancroft St.). At (1800 Federal St.), meanwhile, she skips past the usual faux-meat vegan cheesesteak by transforming sheer slices of roasted eggplant — salt-cured, dehydrated, marinated with liquid smoke, soy, and mushroom powder then griddled like meat on the flat-top — for an eggplant Parm steak drizzled with a parsnip whiz reminiscent of Vedge’s rutabaga fondue masterpiece.

“I’m not vegan, I just have a lot of vegan friends,” says DeMarco. “Veganizing recipes is fun to me.”

The eggplant Parm steak sandwich with parsnip "whiz" is a popular vegan option at South Philadelphia Tap Room.
Doreen DeMarco
The eggplant Parm steak sandwich with parsnip "whiz" is a popular vegan option at South Philadelphia Tap Room.