I've never sat down to a meal and come out of it saying, "My favorite part was the eggplant."
And yet, that's what happened at a media dinner Tuesday night when I opted to try the vegetarian asado menu at Del Campo, chef Victor Albisu's new South American restaurant. The grilled and roasted eggplant with charred lemon oil and black garlic might as well have been a rib-eye for how satisfying and savory it was.
Full disclosure: Thanks to my fellow diners, I didn't go without a few tastes of meat stolen from their plates. The whipped lardo (cured salume) spread was rich, meaty and delicious. But I have to say the eggplant, a crostini of roasted chick peas, smoked mushrooms and grilled summer truffles were probably my favorites.
Albisu's pedigree is decidedly meaty. Formerly the chef at BLT Steak, the steakhouse in downtown D.C., Albisu conceived Del Campo with memories of Argentinian and Uruguayan butchers he met in his mother's meat market growing up.
Although the restaurant also has a la carte options, the asado menu is where the meat is truly on display, with a wide variety of charred, grilled and smoked items.
I was intrigued by the vegetarian version of the menu, however, even though I'm an omnivore myself. Albisu said there was never a question that he would do a vegetarian option, in part because of demand but also because the tradition of South American cuisine involves a lot of robust vegetable dishes — the only difference is they are often eaten as sides.
"They use the grill on these incredible, hearty side dishes," Albisu said. "So we just serve them as the main course."
He has also found that his preferred cooking techniques serve the ingredients well.
"I also like to do things where you sear or char the outside, but maybe keep it a little undercooked inside," he said. "The texture really works with some of the vegetables."
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