It is right there, listed in the “Steaks & Chops” section of the menu at Carne Mare, Andrew Carmellini’s grand new Italian steakhouse, just above the marbled strip loin “cured” in gorgonzola and the rosy slabs of “porchetta-spiced” prime rib: The Beet. Or, as it is listed formally, the “12 oz smoke-roasted beet steak.” The beet has been brined, dry-rubbed, smoked, roasted, and char-grilled, to extract the full potential of its beetiness, at which point it is rolled out on a cart into the dining room, still smoking, topped with goat’s-milk butter, and served whole, in a reduction of its own juices. Eater calls it “quite possibly the most flavorful beet preparation in NYC.”
Unless that honor goes to the whole roast beet at Eleven Madison Park. That beet is dehydrated, smoked, and roasted — a three-day process, for texture — before being baked in a custom ceramic vessel in a nest of its own greens, from which it is extracted, also tableside, also on a cart. As I watched this ceremony unfold during a recent dinner, I was reminded of the much-lauded beet course that the chef Flynn McGarry once served at his downtown restaurant, Gem — a beet that had similarly been smoked and roasted, as well as aged, braised, grilled, juiced, and glazed. And McGarry’s beet carried echoes of yet another hypermanipulated beet, one served way back in 2016 at the neo-Viking Agern. That restaurant (now closed, a pandemic-era casualty) was something a pioneer of American beet theatrics: Executive chef Gunnar Karl Gislason would appear, yes, tableside to carve a “salt-and-ash baked” beet, presented atop a nest of even more beets, which have, of course, been shredded, pickled, and fermented in a variety of new and beet-y ways.
These are good beets — excellent beets, as beets go, perhaps the best beets — and I am in favor of vegetables. It’s just that every time a restaurant worker rolls a whole, smoking beet into a dining room, it seems, it is heralded as a majestic culinary innovation: behold, a beet cooked several different ways at once. And every time, I think the same thing: This tastes like a beet.
This is not to say that beets are bad. Beets are incredibly fine. Beet salads and bowls of borscht — hot or cold in either instance — are staples for a reason. There’s nothing to dislike about beets, per se, which is part of the problem. There is nothing not to like about beets, because beets are the vegetable equivalent of a benignly boring date, mild and smooth and sweetly monotonous. No amount of dehydrating, rehydrating, salting, charring, juicing, or grilling can make up for what beets lack, which is interest, texture, and flavor.
As Carmellini himself once explained to the Times, the secret to making beets taste good is to make them taste like something else: “They soak up anything you throw at them,” he said. (Their proclivity for vinaigrette helps explain the wild success of the beet-and-goat-cheese salad, which burst onto California’s culinary scene in the early 1980s and quickly became a mainstay of more forward-thinking country-club menus around America.)
And you can’t say beets aren’t beautiful, so glistening, so red, so uncannily sized like human hearts. Their value as a filet stand-in is obvious: What other vegetable can stand alone, whole, red, and bleeding, at the center of the plate? Can you cure them in a bath of gorgonzola? I have no doubt that somebody is working on it.
I should love it. I love meat alternatives, creative vegetables, the color red, and fun. Instead, I am ready for the beets to stop, or at least go on hiatus. A $36 theatrical beet, on its cart, presented like a magic trick — is it beef, or a beet? — is delightful the first time, and maybe the second, and perhaps for hard-core beet-lovers, the third, but for the casually curious, it is enough.
Proximity to meatiness is nice, and, in the case of Carne Mare, perhaps necessary. It’s a steakhouse. Fine. But the first time you see a beet steak or a beet filet — to say nothing of the overabundance of beet tartares in the world — it’s a fun little joke. The result is a near-perfect translation of a kind of luxury associated almost exclusively with hulking cuts of beef. It is a showstopper. But now it’s a joke that’s been told too many times, and the punch line is always the same: “beet.”
It is just that, perhaps — an idea that I am toying with — the current obsession with forcing whole vegetables to exactly fill the role of “the protein” in the classic model of American dining might not, in fact, show them to their best advantage. Sometimes it is a beet. Sometimes it is a whole head of roast cauliflower. Always, it is gargantuan, repetitive, and served with steak knives. Almost always, it is, by the end, a slog, which is less about the vegetables themselves than about the limits of meat trickery. “You don’t replace a hunk of pork shoulder with one big central vegetable dish,” René Redzepi, a god-level master manipulator of vegetables, told Bon Appétit in 2012. “Think in terms of smaller plates with a variety of flavors.” Yes!
But it seems we have a ways to go before we get there. The logistics of cooking, serving, and pricing restaurant dishes being what they are, we are, for the time being, stuck with big beets. It is a thoughtful touch, the showstopper veggie. It is appreciated — even, sometimes, fun — and someday it will be over, and when it is, I look forward to a giant sale on carts.