Plant Thrives

Photo by Matt Rose

Photo by Matt Rose

Plant isn’t a vegan restaurant. It’s a small, upscale restaurant with a vegan menu. It’s a values-driven business, says chef Jason Sellers. And it’s an idea whose time has come.

When most foodies hear the term ‘vegan restaurant,’ certain images come to mind: a little hole-in-the-wall space decorated with Indian block print textiles, a stack of earnest brochures near the door detailing the unpleasant truths about meat eating. On the menu, there are wrapped sprouts and wheat grass juice. There’s an eat-your-vegetables-because-they’re-good-for-you type approach that can take a little of the joy out the experience.

Plant approaches vegan food from the opposite end of the spectrum: eat these vegetables because they’re delicious, fresh, seasonal, local, and creatively interpreted. And above all, enjoy your meal. It’s grown-up, urban vegan cuisine that doesn’t preach, but makes a convert out of you with every bite.

A joint project of entrepreneurs Alan Berger and Leslie Armstrong (former owners of Rosebud Video) and Sellers (former chef at Laughing Seed), Plant seems to have filled a niche that no one even knew existed in the Asheville restaurant scene. The atmosphere is warm and convivial, with a small dining room and open kitchen that gives diners a chance to see the chef and his colleagues at work. The design is understated and sophisticated: low lighting and a soft, neutral color palette. Everything about the ambience indicates that the menu will be equally sophisticated, and it does not disappoint.

Entrées such as the black pepper tofu (served with jasmine rise, kaffir lime cakes, and sautéed local mushrooms) or the mushroom risotto, served with grilled tempeh demonstrate the range Sellers is able to achieve with locally sourced produce (such as rutabaga from Mars Hill and apples from Hendersonville) and vegan ingredients. The raw food enchilada is flavorful and surprisingly filling. There’s not too much of an effort to offer substitutes for meat: each ingredient is cooked to highlight its texture and flavor. Meat and dairy? You’ll never miss them.

Seasonality informs Sellers’ approach to the menu. There are subtle changes dependent on what’s available from local producers. At the same time, the restaurant aims to please return guests. “People like to get the thing they loved last time they came,” says Sellers. Making the transition between seasons is an exercise in subtly: You might find a corn-based risotto one time and a rice-based one a few months later.

Patrons at upscale restaurants expect wine and beer, and Plant has a growing slate of carefully selected vegan wines from around the world, along with local beers. While vegan wine is by reputation pricey, the selections on Plant’s menu provide good value, with bottles ranging from $18 to $40.

Matt Rose
Some express surprise at the range of vegan desserts: individual apple pies with local apples, “blackout pie” with a dark chocolate mousse, banana macadamia ice cream and berry agave for example. Sellers says that dairy based desserts can often mask the flavor, while vegan desserts let the subtlety of the flavor come through.

Open only since August, Plant has already developed the kind of following that most new restaurants can only dream of. Within a few weeks, word of mouth was sending a steady stream of customers through the door, which quickly translated to repeat visits. And as you may have read, even the world’s most famous vegan musician Moby stopped by for a meal during Moogfest.

Sellers say that the restaurant’s instant success was a surprise. “We didn’t expect to do this much business right away. We’re blown away.”

That kind of success probably wouldn’t have been possible if Plant had stressed the ‘vegan’ over the ‘great food.’ Most of the restaurant-goers aren’t vegan or even vegetarian, says Sellers: they’re just fans of the food.

For Sellers, Armstrong, and Berger, there was never any question that their venture would not be vegan: what the trio does for work has to be a reflection of their values, says Sellers. “This is the only thing we do. If this doesn’t work, it’s not like we’re not going to open a pizza restaurant or a rib shack.”

But the fact that Plant has been embraced by such a wide variety of people has been gratifying to the chef. “I’ve never done something that’s so aligned with what I want to do.”

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