As the founder of an event called Meatopia, you can imagine how hostile I am to the vegetable kingdom. And yet...there are a handful of chefs in New York whose arts are so cunning that even I don't mind taking a break from the flesh.
If you either are or accompanying a dedicated meat-eater who refuses to eat any vegetarian dishes, this is the place to go: a Chinese restaurant whose menu is filled with meat dishes (that are not made of meat.) The food looks like meat and tastes like meat, from duck to char siu, but somehow it's made out of mysterious proteins. Check it!
The consummate greenmarket restaurant (well, it and Gramercy Tavern) presents a kind of zen-like simplicity in both the room and the food. While the proteins are very good, it's in the produce, all grown for the restaurant, that is the star of the show. For that reason, and given the seasonality that is almost a religion here, you'd do better to go in spring or summer.
Jean-Georges Vongerichten's biggest, prettiest restaurant was a joint effort with the great Gray Kunz and its brilliant Asian-fusion menu, a tribute to the street food of southeast asia, has some of the most sophisticated food of any such restaurant in town, despite all the tourists. The vegetarian tasting menu is one of the best in town, and the only one that can really be called cool in any sense.
A rarity in New York, this sleek pan-asian restaurant looks like a dozen others but manages somehow to be completely vegetarian without producing the usual hippie grub. The artful use of soy, black beans, miso, and of course spices like the titular one liven up what would otherwise be the blandest of materials.
How this place manages to make vegan food taste good may be one of the great mysteries, but there's no doubt that they pull it off. The room and service are a major cut above what is generally expected from such places; there's no health-food vibe, and the servers, like the cooks, are true pros. A vegan restaurant you can bring a meateater to.
John Fraser's heroic effort to single-handedly bring haute cuisine to the Upper West Side has largely succeeded, thanks to his unpretentious but precise cooking. His Meatless Monday menu is so good that even I can eat it.
I'm going to go ahead and bet that this is the only restaurant you'll ever go to in New York that has an in-house dietician working with the chef. There's an elaborate dogma behind the place, which serves a kind of elevated spa cuisine, but you wouldn't know it from the food, which while coming in small portions, tends to have very distinct and assertive flavors. The room is big and handsome, but don't expect to get out of here for less than $100 a person.
It takes a certain temperament to come to Kajitsu, an ineffably fastidious Japanese vegetarian zen cookery. Don't expect to get bowled over by flavor, or to walk out especially full, but do expect a supremely subtle, umami-filled experience. This is a restaurant for very civilized people, or the elderly. I want to be able to appreciate because I can see how accomplished it is, but it's not my thing.
David Bouley hasn't been in the news much lately but he's a titan of New York dining, and has continued, through lo these many years to present some of the most elegant and precise food in the country at his flagship restaurant. He has a special affinity with seafood and vegetables, so it's a great place to take light eaters, but the meats are great too in their own way.