Planta restaurant review: Bethesda’s newcomer shines a light on vegetables
Did the United Nations take over the place? It sure looks like it, judging by the sea of faces that regularly fill the restaurant. It’s not a scene I expected in Bethesda, whose population is over 75% white, and at a time when the country is as divided as it is. Frankly, I’m shocked, like delighted, to see a rainbow coalition also embracing a mix of genders and ages, especially in a restaurant where meat isn’t served.
Planta, launched in 2016 by founder Steven Salm and chef David Lee, opened its first location in Toronto and has grown to nine plant-based restaurants in Canada and the United States (a branch in Fort Lauderdale is next) . Lee, a London native who immigrated to Canada in 1994, offers a concise menu that manages to cover sushi, pizza, pasta and ties to his Chinese heritage. Regarding the spread, “it’s for everyone,” says the chef, who practices what he preaches during the week but sometimes eats fish on weekends.
There is no sunnier meatless area in the region. Light streams into the corner space, whose smart sofas, parked by the windows, provide excellent people-watching and whose bar is awash in bright green tiles. The custom-designed botanical wallpaper transforms a section of the dining room into a cross between a garden and a gallery. It sounds soothing, but a full, lounge soundtrack forces diners to relax and lean into dinner.
My first taste of cooking did not appeal to me. A white pizza managed to be both burnt on the bottom and undercooked on the top. It didn’t help that the pie was followed by a curly salad containing eggplant, lentil, pomegranate and tahini which tasted like a bunch of ingredients meeting for the first time and having no not much in common.
The hero of my first meal was a bowl of fried broccoli florets smeared with peanut and sweet pepper sauces. Dredge in cornstarch and rice flour before hitting the hot oil, the crackling vegetable was, like Dolly Parton, impossible not to love. The “Bang bang” broccoli made enough of an impression that I booked twice more at Planta. Surely there were more such attractions on the menu.
Sure enough, an order of cauliflower sustained my interest. Made with shredded cauliflower and potato, the balls are tanned in the air fryer and finished with a dollop of “aioli” spun from chickpea flour, lemon juice and mustard and truffle flavored. The result is crunchy and creamy, both homespun and highfalutin. Grated beets topped with creamy avocado are the Kit Kat of appetizers, fusing together flavors you might not expect to agree with but will convince you otherwise when you taste them together. A burst of lime juice, a topping of pine nuts and a frame of taro chips, solid enough to tackle the spread, up the fun. Lee seems to be channeling his family with spinach-filled steamed dumplings that any Chinese restaurant would be happy to claim as their own. A finish of chilli oil and Sichuan peppercorns gives the dish a nice explosion.
Out-of-town restaurants often use crab cakes to attract locals. Planta’s nod to regional pride is a dip that attributes the hearts of palm to the role of seafood. When cooked, the hearts of palm, which Planta sources from a farmer in Hawaii, break down, release their juices and gain in smoothness with the addition of what tastes like remoulade. Old Bay makes the “crab” dip even more believable.
There are no fake meats at Planta. Instead, the channel relies on the power of plants to make a statement. The rich tomato sauce draping a plate of tender, snail-shaped pasta gets its heat from Calabrian chili peppers and its mild sweetness from coconut milk. What you feel like cheese is actually cashew ‘mozzarella’.
The pizzas have gotten better with each visit, by the way. My last – a fluffy “bianca” pizza accented with olives, onions, capers – came streaked with chili oil and baked until golden brown. The sliced potatoes that contribute to the name of the pizza added weight and rosemary flavor.
A disarmingly honest waiter responded to my request for mushroom “bacon” sushi with a warning: “Half the people who order it return it,” he said. Of course, I ordered it – and failed to finish the pillow of tofu skin stretched over mushrooms stained with acrid liquid smoke. The most compelling sushi swaps tuna for “ahi” watermelon, whose rind is marinated and dehydrated flesh splashed with a citrus soy vinaigrette. Better yet, a dragon roll, tantalizing in green – avocado, spinach, broccoli tempura – topped with a respectable veggie double for the eel sauce.
The service is as constant as the room is diverse. Planta trains its staff for at least two weeks, during which workers must pass four tests that go beyond food and beverage knowledge to include background information about founders and even design questions. (Like the water glasses? “They’re made by Fortessa.”) The company then kicks back employees with carrots, including medical and dental insurance, gym discounts, referral bonuses, half off meals in all Plantas – even discounts on pet insurance. Perhaps the benefits explain the enthusiasm that I have repeatedly encountered. The young crew is knowledgeable, engaged, caring and quick, like the night my server sprinted out the door and into the block to reunite a few diners with their forgotten leftovers. (As with a growing number of restaurants, this one doesn’t require workers to be vaccinated or masked, though the servers I encountered were all wearing blankets.)
First impressions are important, but the time spent in a restaurant gives diners a better idea of the potential. Three dates with Planta suggest that this is the start of a beautiful relationship. Just say yes to broccoli “bang bang” and no to mushroom “bacon”.
4910 Elm Street, Bethesda. 301-407-2447. plantarestaurants.com. Open: Indoor dining, delivery and takeout 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. 30 a.m. on Sunday. Price: Entrees $6.25 to $18.25, entrees $18.50 to $25.50. Sound control: 78 decibels/must speak in a high voice. Accessibility: No barrier to entry; restrooms are ADA compliant. Pandemic Protocols: Staff are not required to be vaccinated or wear masks.