I’m a sucker for a refreshing libation and a good pun. So my pre-dinner Herb Your Enthusiasm cocktail, a delightful amalgam of Cointreau, chile-infused tequila, lime juice and herb syrup garnished with fresh pineapple, puts me in a good mood at Planta before I even taste the food. The vibe-y, plant-based restaurant, which opened at Bethesda Row in February, is the ninth location of 10 in a growing chain founded by restaurateur Steven Salm and executive chef David Lee in Toronto in 2016. They have four locations in Toronto, one in New York City (with a second one due to open), four in Florida and several others in the works, including one in D.C.’s West End later this year.
To accompany my drink, I choose two sushi offerings. For one, rectangles of pressed sushi rice topped with thin slices of avocado and miso glaze are torched to create char and caramelization. A smattering of black truffle on top pushes the bites into the realm of sublimity. For ahi watermelon nigiri, strips of watermelon flesh—cunningly dehydrated and draped over pressed seasoned rice—stand in for fish. The effect is stunning—the deep ruby fruit looks just like ahi tuna, down to its faint striations. A simple garnish—a tiny dollop of grated ginger on top—offers a hint of spiciness. Citrus soy dressing brushed on the melon adds umami to the sushi, but not enough to tip the scale from sweet to savory.
Salm embraced a plant-based lifestyle in 2016 after he watched Cowspiracy, a 2014 documentary that outlined the negative impact of animal agriculture on the environment. He directed the culinary team of his restaurant group (which Planta is now part of) to convert 25% of its menus to plant-based items, then teamed with Lee, an acclaimed restaurateur and chef in Toronto, to create Planta, which is 100% vegan. (So are materials used for the restaurants’ interiors.) Rather than proselytize as an activist, says Salm, he chose to create beautifully designed, hip spaces that offer innovative food that happens to be vegan.
He has achieved that goal in Bethesda.
Alden Fenwick Design, based in Sag Harbor, New York, designed the 4,229-square-foot space, which seats 140 inside, including 15 at the bar, and 30 outside. Windows flood the restaurant with natural light. When front glass folding doors are completely open to the patio, there’s a breezy indoor/outdoor feel.
The decor has a Japan-meets-midcentury-modern-meets-Miami vibe. Settees upholstered in channel-tufted, light pink velveteen with a gray geometric pattern and faux-leather bench cushions harmonize with curved, wood-grained midcentury modern dining chairs, hunter green subway tiles in the bar and blush pink walls. Steel blue terrazzo flooring speckled with pink and copper in the bar juxtaposes with the bleached herringbone-patterned wood floors of the main dining area. Rafters are used cleverly as drop ceilings to hide ductwork. Wooden dowels surrounding support structures throughout the space render Doric-like columns modern. A back wall papered with a wild print of green fronds (it reminds me of Blanche Devereaux’s bedroom in The Golden Girls) adds a jolt of movement and color.
Several starters at Planta intrigue. Steamed-spinach-and-shiitake dumplings bathed in truffled soy sauce and hot chile oil and heaped with fresh cilantro leaves burst with flavor. Tempura-battered deep-fried broccoli “bang bang” florets in sticky chile peanut sauce are irresistible. For beetroot “tuna tartare,” cubed beets, pine nuts, chopped capers and sesame soy dressing are tossed together and molded into a neat cylinder topped with a layer of guacamole. The dish is pretty and delicious as is, but it can also be piled onto accompanying taro chips. (I don’t get the tuna billing; I’m satisfied with them as beets.) One dish designed especially for Bethesda—“crab” dip—is wide strips of cooked fresh hearts of palm baked with creamy cashew mozzarella and dill and served hot with Old Bay remoulade and taro chips. I love the richness and flavor here, but “dip” is a misnomer. The strips can’t be spread on a chip and have to be eaten with a fork and knife, which I’m happy to do.
For entrees, don’t miss the spaghettini carbonara: perfectly al dente noodles and chopped “bacon” made from tempeh and mushrooms (it has the texture and smokiness of jarred bacon bits) swathed in a creamy, spicy coconut milk-based sauce and topped with almond-based “Parmesan.” (I’d be just as content to consume this carbonara as the meat-based one.) Planta’s burger is a thick, seared-then-baked patty (black beans, quinoa, lentils, mushrooms, chickpeas and herbs) gussied up with the works: lettuce, tomato, raw onions, dill pickles, yellow mustard, vegan mayo and queso sauce. The bun can’t contain the wonderfully sloppy mess, so just go with the flow—consider the crispy truffle fries that come with it a reward for your effort. The California pizza, with a thin, slightly chewy crust, is summer on a plate: zucchini strips, tomatoes, raw red onions, arugula, basil pesto, cherry peppers and thick slices of avocado drizzled with chili oil and crowned with a grilled lemon half.
There is no dessert menu at Planta; servers recite the options to you. The major components of a brownie sundae with soft serve vanilla ice cream (that tasted like coconut) and hot fudge do not live up to my non-vegan expectations in the texture and flavor departments, so it’s not my thing. Cheesecake with sour cherry compote is a better way to go. Dessert may not be the strong point at Planta, but everything else is. Not that it should matter, but all the carnivores who accompanied me to Planta say they’d return enthusiastically.
4910 Elm St., Bethesda, 301-407-2447, plantarestaurants.com
Overall rating: B+
Favorite dishes: Avocado, beet and lime tartare; Torched and Pressed (avocado nigiri with miso and truffles); steamed-spinach-and-shiitake dumplings; carbonara pasta; California pizza (zucchini, avocado, arugula); Herb Your Enthusiasm cocktail; strawberry cheesecake with sour cherry compote.
Prices: Appetizers: $6.25 to $18.50; Entrees: $20.25 to $25.95; Desserts: $7 to $14.
Libations: Planta has a well-rounded beverage program that includes six craft cocktails ($13.50), among them the Pink Flamingo (vodka, grapefruit juice, hibiscus, lime juice) and a mojito made with rum, mint, lime juice and berry kombucha; and three zero-proof antioxidant tonics ($11), such as the Matcha Mojito (Seedlip Garden 108, lime juice, matcha syrup, mint). There are also four cold-pressed juices ($10), including the Notorious OBG, made from fresh oranges, beets and ginger. The 23 bottles on the wine list (four sparkling, 10 white, nine red) range from $48 to $84, and the 13 wines by the glass are $12 to $16.
Service: Mostly eager, accommodating and knowledgeable.
David Hagedorn is the restaurant critic for Bethesda Magazine.