"Food and restaurant trends come and go, but vegetables will always be in vogue," says chef John Fraser of the newly minted Nix restaurant in New York City's Greenwich Village. Nix is the third New York City restaurant under Fraser's watch—he's also the owner of Dovetail, and the chef at Narcissa, and he has good reason to believe that vegetable-centric menus are more future than fad.
Conceptualizing the all-vegetarian menu at Nix felt like a "natural progression," explains Fraser.
And anyone who's followed his career can attest to the evolution. In 2010, Fraser introduced a "Meatless Monday" menu at Dovetail before the term "vegetable-forward" had become the philosophy driving so many chefs; Narcissa, his restaurant on the ground floor of The Standard Hotel in the East Village, features meatier dishes such as braised lamb, but diners leave most impressed by the "Carrots Wellington." (One of Fraser's signature dishes of roasted carrots mixed with walnuts and sunchokes, then wrapped in a puff pastry dense with butter.)
"Food and restaurant trends come and go, but vegetables will always be in vogue."
In addition to his years of experience honing his ability to infuse vegetable cookery with some added excitement, Fraser has another asset elevating Nix as the face of the modern vegetarian restaurant: his business partner, James Truman. As the former editorial director of Conde Nast, Truman—who oversaw magazines including Vogue, GQ, and The New Yorker among many others—focuses on what he does best: editing the aesthetic details and overall feel of Nix.
Alongside architect Elizabeth Roberts, Truman helped design the space, which features white-washed walls, an airy '70s vibe, a striking wood-framed skylight, and custom lamps lofted by bases of organically misshapen wooden throughout the restaurant. Even more striking, the servers wear the most pleasantly eye-catching uniforms we've ever seen at a restaurant—navy blue patterned smocks designed by Paul Marlow, who formerly worked for Marc Jacobs. (The sommelier, Andrea Morris, has five Marlow-designed dresses in the same silhouette but with different patterns to help make her distinguishable to guests.)
Truman's interest in restaurants spawned from his earliest childhood memories traveling around Europe with his parents. "I didn't know it at the time, but we ate at some of the best restaurants in France and Italy," recalls Truman. "It certainly set the stage for a lifetime of interest in restaurants—the food, obviously—but also the design, lighting, service, and overall theatricality of the experience."
With Truman busy orchestrating the front-of-house show, Fraser is able to keep his head in the kitchen, where he's constantly tweaking the menu to accommodate the season's best produce. "Being so close to the Union Square Greenmarket—where we source all of our vegetables for Nix—makes it easy to create a high-quality, vegetable-focused menu," explains Fraser.
"We saw an opportunity to make vegetarian food taste better than meat."
The menu, despite being vegetarian (a fully vegan option is available), is designed to progress from the slightly more virtuous to the downright decadent. "There's a selection of lighter, appetizer-portioned dishes, but half of our menu is bolder, richer, and full of flavor and substance," says Fraser. "No one's going home hungry." Consider the Yukon potato fry bread: a cross between a baked potato and a carnival-style funnel cake, which comes "highly decorated" with sliced radishes, crumbles from a head of broccoli, and a generous amount of sour cream covering the top.
One of Fraser's signature techniques is creating dishes that don't set out to act as blatant substitutes for meat—rather, the vegetables are treated in unexpected ways. At Nix, he's taken this to a whole new level, with the use of the restaurant's tandoor oven and emphasis on cooking in a wok.
"The wok and tandoori cooking methods are great because they're able to impart char quickly," explains Fraser. "Whereas meat may be able to deal with longer cooking and still maintain a textural interior, veggies tend to go to mush."
Fraser himself switched to a vegetable-based diet in 2011, which has clearly influenced his style of cooking, but his restaurants aren't sanctimonious platforms for the chef, or for Truman. "The opportunity chef John Fraser and I saw was to make vegetarian food taste better than meat," says Truman, "and to make the experience of eating there celebratory and fun, so no one would feel like they're giving up anything, but rather dining a new, modern way."