Executive chef Jonathan Dearden is a self-proclaimed carnivore, and his global tapas-style menu at Radiator features a plenty of dishes to satisfy meat eaters. And while he does prepare a healthy number of dishes for vegetarians, meat substitutes always had him skeptical. That changed on a recent trip to Los Angeles, where he stopped off at a vegan restaurant serving a spicy "meatball" pizza so good he couldn't believe it wasn't beef.
Those faux meatballs were made with Impossible Foods "meat," which was developed to mimic the textures and flavors of ground beef by using plants and chemistry. Dearden took that meal as an opportunity to challenge himself in his own kitchen back in D.C. and create something that would appeal to a wide range of diets and tastes.
"I didn’t want to take options away from diners that prefer meat, but rather add dishes for vegetarians and vegans to enjoy," he says. "I wanted to make a dish that every meat lover could relate to, like spaghetti and meatballs, and have them also be surprised with how good it is."
That vision turned into a hearty and comforting plate of bucatini pasta with Impossible meatballs. Dearden uses a simple recipe of minced garlic, rosemary, sage, parsley and red chili flakes. It's modified to omit egg and cheese in order to keep it vegan. Coconut oil in the Impossible meat helps to bind it all together. The meatballs are accompanied by an heirloom tomato sauce cooked with sliced garlic, Chardonnay and olive oil.
He figured the dish would likely be a tough sell given D.C.'s history as a "meat and potatoes" town. But the Impossible meat has been popular at other restaurants around town, especially as a meatless burger option. So perhaps it's not surprising the reception at Radiator has been overwhelmingly positive.
"We have had guests – typically meat eaters – that have had the dish without knowing it was vegan meat," he says. In one instance, he says, guests were so impressed they came back with a vegan friend.
Dearden says the dish mirrors a shift in his own diet and philosophy in the kitchen at Radiator away from meals of large steaks or a half chicken for one.
"I used to focus on cooking meat proteins and garnishing them with a starch and a vegetable," he says. "Now, I create dishes with a balance of animal- and plant-based proteins."
Radiator is located at 1430 Rhode Island Ave. NW, inside the Mason & Rook hotel.