Chef Emil Rivera thinks deeply about the vegan dishes he puts on the menu at Sur Lie in Portland, and he’s taken the same care in creating the plant-based dishes featured during this year’s Maine Restaurant Week, which runs until March 12.

“When I’m crafting a vegan dish, I don’t want it to be boring,” Rivera told me. “I want it to be something interesting. I don’t want our diners to feel like it’s sautéed vegetables or mixed lettuce. I make food that I want to eat.”

During this year’s statewide event, which entices winter-weary diners out of their cozy abodes with meal deals, Rivera will offer an intriguing vegan option for each of the four courses that make up Sur Lie’s $35 deal.

The first course is black-eyed peas escabeche, a plant-based bean dip from the restaurant’s regular menu that’s made with fire-roasted peppers, onions and lots of parsley and is served with fresh lavash. It’s followed by a curry sweet potato empanada, which is served with a housemade cashew dipping sauce.

“The empanada is on the sweet side and the sauce is on the savory side,” Rivera said.

The third course vegan choice is Red Dragon udon, which Rivera will keep on the Sur Lie menu after Restaurant Week ends. Made with udon noodles, bok choy, Chinese broccoli and Korean coconut-chili sauce, “that’s been a work in progress for the last month,” Rivera said. “I keep editing the dish, and I feel like we’ve reached the point of perfect balance. It’s one of my most favorite dishes that I’ve recently come up with.”

Finally, for dessert, there is dango, a Japanese dumpling made from mochi (a soft rice flour dough) with coconut sugar-passionfruit syrup, a sprinkle of frosted brown rice crispies and a side of Gelato Fiasco mango sorbetto.

Rivera isn’t the only chef participating in Maine Restaurant Week who develops vegan dishes with intention.

Mitchell Kaldrovich, who owns MK Kitchen in Gorham with his wife, told me that when he creates new vegan dishes he thinks about making them complete meals, not merely piles of vegetables. “Our job in the kitchen is to make people have a special night,” Kaldrovich said.

During Maine Restaurant Week, that special night begins with the daily vegan soup. Most of MK Kitchen’s soups – such as carrot-ginger, white bean, and sweet potato – are vegan.

During Maine Restaurant Week, MK Kitchen in Gorham is offering vegan choices including a daily vegan soup, such as this roasted root vegetable soup, and a quinoa bowl topped with fried Brussels sprouts. Photo courtesy of MK Kitchen

Since he is from South America, Kaldrovich often turns to quinoa as a go-to ingredient for plant-based dishes, and during Restaurant Week the vegan entree choice is a quinoa bowl. Kaldrovich says he prepares it much like fried rice – browning broccoli, green beans, carrots and parsnips and tossing the vegetables with the quinoa. Toward the end, he adds spinach and kale, just to wilt; then he finishes the dish with fried Brussels sprouts and an emulsion of lemon juice and olive oil.

The three-course meal costs $35 and finishes with housemade sorbet.

Over at Gather in Yarmouth, which is offering three courses for $25 during Restaurant Week, owner Matt Chappell says that as demand has increased, the kitchen staff has upgraded its approach to vegan cooking.

“Five years ago, it was more of a simpler approach that might look at pasta with vegetables or a risotto dish, which were all good but pretty basic,” Chappell said. “In recent years, we’ve gotten more skillful at finding vegan flavors.”

For Restaurant Week, Gather’s vegan appetizer is a beet and toasted pepitas salad with pomegranate vinaigrette. The salad is followed by tacos stuffed with Maine-made Heiwa Tofu, topped with cabbage and kelp slaw and smoked pico de gallo, and served in corn tortillas from Maine’s Tortillería Pachanga. For dessert? Sorbet.

At Bueno Loco in Falmouth, Restaurant Week vegan choices are Mayan spring rolls, chili rellenos (stuffed poblano peppers) and avocado mousse cake. Nonesuch River Brewing in Scarborough is participating in Restaurant Week for the first time; customers interested in eating vegan there can opt for a dish of lentils, quinoa and roasted vegetables. In Portland, Five Fifty-Five is offering butternut squash cavatelli with North Spore mushrooms, kale pistou and pepitas, while Petite Jacqueline – the two restaurants share ownership – is serving a vegan cassoulet (traditionally, cassoulet is a meat-heavy dish involving heaps of duck or goose, sausages and pork or lamb). Emilitsa’s vegan option is a medley of green beans and potatoes braised in tomato sauce.

The Maine Restaurant Week website (mainerestaurantweek.com) has a search tool that allows you to see which participating restaurants offer vegan, vegetarian or gluten-free meal deal options. One of them is bound to tempt you to venture out into the winter night.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at

[email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

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