When people fantasize about Spanish cuisine, they usually picture the epitome of traditional tapas such as gambas al ajillo (golden shrimp with garlic and chilis in an unctuous olive oil bath), or the prized, acorn-fed Iberian ham and its rich marbling.
But in Naples, Lamoraga offers a different perspective. The contemporary Mediterranean oasis on U.S. 41—with its undulating ceiling panels, stark white bar stools and a wide-open kitchen that can be surveyed from any table—is modern in more ways than one. That forward-thinking mindset is most notably applied to its menu.
The restaurant bills itself as a hotspot of Mediterranean fusion and tapas. And while you can indulge in a Valencian paella with chicken and saffron-soaked rice, there’s also a plant-based version—as well as other vegan dishes, such as deep-fried shiitake and oyster mushroom ‘calamari,’ a pincho (a tapa you can pick up, or pinch, with your fingers) of smashed avocado and plantain, and Andalusian gazpacho swirled with basil oil—all without a trace of meat.
The genesis of Lamoraga’s plant-based offerings dates back about two years to when the restaurant began hosting monthly vegan dinners that have turned into passion projects for owner Thomas Nütten and chef J.C. Perez. The two create a new four-course, $29 menu each month, with much research and development for every dish. The vegan menu is offered for one or two days, alongside the regular a la carte omnivore options, which now also includes a handful of vegan dishes in the mix.
“With my chef and kitchen being flexible, we embraced it and started having fun,” Nütten says. “It’s to the point where I’ll order the vegan dishes for my friends and family when I’m entertaining because I think they are really good—not just good for vegan dishes. I honestly love our mushroom ‘calamari,’ perhaps even more than our regular one.”
The community response has been overwhelmingly positive, attracting a new crowd of regulars. It’s a trend in line with the groundswell of interest at a national level (think almond milk and Beyond Burger). The Plant Based Foods Association has been reporting record growth in its sector for the past several years, with an 11.4% spike in consumption in 2019. When you compare this significant rise with the number of people who identify themselves as vegan (just one percentage point increase from 2012 to 2018, according to Gallup), it’s apparent that more people are dabbling in the trend, but not full-on committing.
It’s something that Nütten has witnessed play out in the restaurant. When he hosts the two-night vegan dinners each month, diners come in specifically for those plant-based options with friends who order off the regular menu. So, if someone in a group doesn’t want the prix fixe or is craving one of the standard tapas, they can have their albondigas and eat them too.
Two standout restaurants in town, the critically acclaimed 21 Spices by Chef Asif and Kareem’s Lebanese Kitchen, have extensive vegan menus available every night. Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines naturally lend themselves to vegetarian dishes, but the leadership behind both spots goes a step further by advertising that they don’t use any added oils, which is in line with the health-forward thinking behind the movement. Meanwhile, places like The Local (Naples’ first branded farm-to-table eatery) and True Food Kitchen (a small-ish national chain) are committed to offering vegan choices. Even Chops City Grill, a bonafide steakhouse in Naples, has gone out of its way to develop its menu with more than 30 vegetable-only offerings.
Like the vines of plants that give vegans sustenance, the reach of healthy, plant-rooted cuisine has never grown faster than in the last five years. Naples saw Vegan Kitchen, Organically Twisted, True Food Kitchen, Café Nutrients and Oakes Farms’ Seed to Table debut. Fort Myers got Fibrre, Living Vine Organic Café and a relaunched Green Cup Café. The islands got the rebirth of The Sanibel Sprout, the only truly plant-focused restaurant on Sanibel, which had closed a few years ago, much to locals’ dismay. Not all of these are strictly vegan, yet they have enough of a focus on balanced, whole-food eating to be considered part of the movement. They joined some longtime standbys in the area, like the original Food & Thought in Naples, Chef Brooke’s Natural Café in Fort Myers and Café YOU in Cape Coral, all of which have catered to the plant-based crowd over the past decade or longer.
Helping to grow the local interest is Mike Young, founder of the web-based vegan organization aPlantBasedDiet.org, along with SWFL Veg Fest and its numerous regional offshoots. The respective owners of Lamoraga, 21 Spices and Kareem’s started working with Young to amplify their vegan offerings.
Young made the decision to go vegan in 2014, and as a way to help with the transition, he started Facebook groups for vegans in markets that he had connections to—Raleigh, N.C.; Washington, D.C.; Naples and Ocala. Much to his surprise, the fastest-growing group with the most fervent followers was none other than Southwest Florida. “It seemed like it was an underserved area and that there were health-conscious people there,” says Young, who estimates the last SWFL Veg Fest had more than 5,000 attendees.
It’s also getting much easier to eat fresh, local products at home. Juicelation has become one of the most popular stores in town with people either popping in to grab cold-pressed, nutrient-dense, organic juices or ordering them and prescribed cleanses (like the one-day, seven-bottle Instaglam) online.
There’s also Not A Burger, a vegan, gluten-free, non-GMO plant-based patty company, which launched in January at the Third Street South Farmers’ Market and makes local deliveries throughout Southwest Florida for $10. While many have lamented how the pandemic shuttered one of our very best high-end farm-to-table restaurants, Harvest & Wisdom, its former executive chef David Robbins is the entrepreneur behind this patty made primarily from locally grown red beets and a mix of ancient grains (such as quinoa, heirloom French lentils and oats), with ingredients like fermented chili paste and fresh herbs to help with the umami factor. “A big component of what makes it special is its whole ingredients,” Robbins says. “It’s not trying to be a substitute for meat. You don’t need a lab to make it. It’s just plants being plants.”
At the farmers’ market, Robbins sells packages of precooked, vacuum-sealed patties out of an ice chest, and he grills them up for customers as a hot sandwich on a sesame bun with homemade garlic herb cashew cheese, heirloom tomatoes, grilled mushrooms and pickles from Naples Canning Co. He also takes special orders for a four-person DIY gourmet burger kit with all the ingredients to recreate his masterpiece, plus jars of his white truffle vegan mayo and gochujang barbecue sauce.
Since day one—and even through a change in management—The Bevy, nearby on 12th Avenue South, has proclaimed its commitment to the green lifestyle; not only through its airy setting and jasmine- and vine-covered walls, but also through its vegan wine dinners, available by request. Pre-pandemic, the restaurant hosted its special dinners on a regular basis, along with weekly Meatless Mondays. Last year, the team started offering the vegan and vegetarian menus to interested parties of six or more who call 24 hours in advance to reserve. Drawing from what’s available at local farms, the chefs create meat-free dishes, such as cauliflower curry ‘steak’ and watermelon salad with serrano pepper, which are expertly paired with global wines. Going the extra mile, the restaurant works with Angelic Desserts to offer vegan, gluten-free and dairy-free baked goods. Even if you’re not going the plant-based route, you’ll still have your pick of juice-centric cocktails and intentionally lighter fare (including on the decadent brunch menu).
While there have been some inevitable casualties within the food scene because of COVID-19, other restaurants have found opportunity amidst the chaos, with some seeing growth, like the organic smoothie-focused The Bowl, which added a third location in Estero. We can only hope that as people increasingly look to their food as a way to stay healthy and become more aware of the environmental benefits of eating more plants, more of these restaurants and menus will keep sprouting.