Any good chef will tell you that exceptional cuisine begins with high quality ingredients. Add creativity and skill, and you can get some great food.
At the Sprig & Vine in New Hope, chef/owner Ross Olchvary understands this well. For him, sourcing his vegetables from small farms in Bucks County and nearby means he is getting the freshest, best quality ingredients for his restaurant’s vegan cuisine.
Olchvary acknowledges that he is part of a nation-wide trend towards buying local and eating seasonally. During his earlier career as a chef, he wasn’t exposed to it, but coming to Bucks County he wanted to incorporate the great produce from local farms. “There is a lot growing around here,” he says. “I love working with the seasons and having a changing menu. I don’t think I could go back to not cooking this way.”
Connecting to local farmers, hearing what is in harvest and tasting the results, is what excites Olchvary as a chef.
“It challenges me as a chef to cook locally,” Olchvary explains. When one of his small farmers tells him that they’ve got 60 lbs. of kohlrabi, “I feel guilty if I don’t put it on the menu. I want to support the cycle.”
When the fresh vegetables come in, he and his chefs taste them and come up with ideas. “When I see an ingredient, a brainstorm goes off in my head. What can I do with it? In the end, it makes me a better chef.”
Olchvary explains that although he can get good ingredients that are not local, “it is not as good as local and fresh.”
“So many small farms seem to care a lot more and focus on details,” he says. “It’s really about chefs who care about food working with farmers who care about food.” His local suppliers give him heirloom varieties of vegetables and a diversity of product he can’t find elsewhere.
When you enter the restaurant, you’ll see a blackboard listing the local farms whose fresh vegetables will be appearing on your plate. Roots to River Farm in Solebury, Hand-picked Farm in Flemington, Fields Without Fences in Frenchtown and Mainly Mushrooms based in Doylestown are just a few. Zone 7, the local food distributor in Ringoes, connects the Sprig & Vine to dozens of other small farms in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
All of this results in an enticing, seasonally-based menu that changes regularly and features the best that the region has to offer.
“One reason that we are successful,” Olchvary explains, “is that we focus on the vegetable, not on meat substitutes like tofu and seitan. We may use them but they are not at the forefront.”
In fact, Olchvary estimates that two-thirds to three-quarters of his customers are not vegetarian or vegan. When he and his wife, Melinda DeAugustines, opened the restaurant in 2010 they were worried about the response they would get in Bucks County. Even though the vegetarian Blue Sage Grille in Southampton had been very successful for years, they weren’t sure what to expect. They chose to market the restaurant as “pure vegetarian” rather than vegan because they were worried people would be scared off.
“But it has been really good from the start,” he says, with strong word-of-mouth that has grown the business steadily. “Customers hear good things about the good food and that’s what brings them in.”
Olchvary thinks it’s all part of a larger educational process. “From farmers’ markets, people are becoming educated about different vegetables and open to new things. Nationally, consumers are focusing on eating more vegetables and less meat.” And restaurants like the Sprig & Vine, I might add, make it easy and delicious to eat meat-free.
As much fun as it is to listen to a talented chef speak about how he uses this local bounty, it’s even more fun to read a menu that is the result. At a recent meal at Sprig & Vine, Mark and I chose to share an appetizer, Zucchini & Black-eye Pea Griddle Cakes with smoked chili-kohlrabi slaw. The slaw had a nice heat to it that balanced nicely with the thick pancakes, and there was quite enough for two.
For the entree, I chose the Kakiage Soba, a beautiful presentation of shredded tempura summer vegetables with a black sesame-sriracha aioli drizzled on top, all sitting upon sauteed arugula, oyster mushrooms, hakurei turnips and corn, sitting in a pool of grilled scallion-soy sauce. Mark had the Pan-roasted Cauliflower, an African-inspired dish, with a stew of peanuts, sweet potato and lentils, collard greens, and seared coconut milk polenta finished with cilantro and grilled lemon.
The restaurant has a warm ambiance. While you can’t see the kitchen, the open design allows you to smell what is coming out and hear the kitchen – sounds of dishes and pans, staff and chefs chatting. It’s comforting and not obtrusive. The staff was authentically friendly, helpful and easily accessible.
I’ve heard people say that they think the Sprig & Vine is expensive which I find curious (you can check out the menus here). I think it is comparable to restaurants that are also serving creative, fresh and interesting fare. In fact, for the level of quality (and the good portion sizes), it may be less expensive than many other fine dining restaurants. If I wanted to be cynical, I might say it is the “vegetarian effect,” that is, folks perceive that if you aren’t getting a hunk of meat, and “only” vegetables, it shouldn’t cost much.
Personally, I’m looking forward to visiting the Sprig & Vine in every season to taste what chef Olchvary and his team will cook up.