My Broccoli Does Not Need a Birth Certificate

Hey, restaurateurs: Want to make green eating a way of life? Start by using your imagination. Donna Garlough goes in search of food with more than just a pedigree.

photograph by kristin teig

The short rice noodles at East by Northeast, which relies on local farms. / photograph by kristin teig

There’s no question that serving locally grown products is a trend that’s here to stay. But late last fall, after hearing about what seemed like the 10th consecutive new restaurant that “will feature seasonal ingredients from local purveyors and farms,” I had to wonder: In the quest for sustainability, have we lost all creativity?

It sure seems that way. Practically every other spot that launched in the past year was a variant on the local and seasonal theme. On the upscale-bistro front, Bondir, Journeyman, and Bergamot joined the ranks of long-standing farm-to-table boîtes like Lumière, Lineage, Ten Tables, Harvest, Beacon Hill Bistro, and Craigie on Main. New gastropubs Foundry on Elm, the Gallows, and Canary Square don’t list every ingredient’s provenance in print, but they all put a spotlight on their ever-changing seasonal offerings.

Even the MFA’s recently opened New American Café, which tapped Ken Oringer as consulting chef, is touting its “locally raised and naturally grown products, many of which are from Northeast Family Farms.” The menu is simply “modern American…with special nods to the New England heritage.” Compare this with the new concept for Asana, formerly the Asian-fusion restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental hotel: “Inspired by local and seasonal ingredients [with a] modern twist, Chef Rich’s menu is enriched with taste and tradition…. [He] utilizes the finest fresh and seasonal ingredients from nearby farms such as Siena Farms…or Sparrow Arc Farms.” Yawwwwn.

Don’t get me wrong: These are all fine establishments capable of top-notch cuisine. Bergamot is a delightful addition to Somerville, and I can’t wait to see what chef Jason Bond does at Bondir. And while I’m a huge proponent of supporting local agriculture and the organic movement (I promise), when you try to describe these new restaurants to an out-of-towner, the sameness is hard to ignore.

Am I the only one who’s tired of eating at places where the biggest selling point is the supplier of their food, not what they do with it? In the same vein, is anyone else sick of menus that name-check every grower whose vegetables the restaurant serves? Apparently so. Jamie Bissonnette of Coppa, known for his waste-not, want-not approach (he uses every inch of each sustainably raised pig he butchers), chooses not to list his ingredients’ sources. (“I’m sick of reading menus like that,” he revealed in Food & Wine.)

To diners, eating out means a great meal first, philosophy second. What our city needs — really, what the green cause needs, if it’s going to be more than a flash in the sauté pan — is more restaurants like Coppa, like East by Northeast (an Asian spot), like Hungry Mother (a southern bistro), Oleana (a Middle Eastern place), and Grill 23 (a steakhouse). Places where buying local is standard practice but not what gets top billing on the menu — or in the chef’s mind. Because no matter how admirable your principles, or how actively you forage for wild mushrooms and heirloom eggs, ideals don’t taste as good as well-prepared ingredients. And nothing keeps people coming back like a restaurant with a real point of view.

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