As anyone who goes to a farmers market knows, winter means brassicas, those leafy, crunchy, root vegetables. But there’s an unofficial hierarchy within the cool-weather vegetable family, and cabbage hasn’t historically been high on the list. It’s not sexy like some of its brassica brethren — after all, you don’t get to massage it like kale, and you can’t serve it in thick, hunky steaks like cauliflower.
Nevertheless, all over San Francisco, chefs are giving the humble cabbage its long-overdue main character moment, serving dishes that feature the vegetable not as a secondary ingredient but as the star of the plate. At The Progress cooks are charring it with crispy tofu, at Dalida it’s stuffed with chestnut-prune freekeh and served with a tomato-cherry sauce, and at Aziza it’s confited then paired with a tart preserved lemon emulsion. “I feel like it used to be that cauliflower was the star,” Birch & Rye chef and owner El-Wattar says with a laugh. “Everything was cauliflower, and now it’s cabbage.”
El-Wattar’s Michelin Guide-listed modern Russian restaurant currently serves a charred cabbage dish made with delicata squash, cranberry beans, and parsnip puree. El-Wattar says she grew up eating lots of cabbage — including in sauerkraut and a sour cabbage soup called shchi — but her appreciation of the vegetable goes beyond the nostalgia factor. “First of all, I love cabbage, and I think it’s delicious,” El-Wattar says. “For me, it’s also a piece of home. I think part of it is that I like the flavor and versatility. But it also has an emotional component.”
Right now, Birch & Rye’s cabbage dish stars purple cabbage, selected for both its eye-catching color and natural sweetness. She’s also working on a recipe for a vegan version of shchi to add to the menu in the coming weeks. To make the cabbage dish on the brunch and a la carte dinner menus, she cuts the head into a large wedge and then chars it on the grill before leaving it to braise in a hotel pan for about an hour and a half. “Charring gives it an almost caramel flavor, and expresses the sweetness of the cabbage,” El-Wattar explains. “It’s a very complex flavor with the sweetness and the bitterness of the cabbage itself.”
Chef Chris Yang of Piglet & Co. in the Mission has a similarly deep appreciation for the leafy vegetable. His restaurant serves a menu of modern Asian comfort food with much of the inspiration coming from Hawaiian and Taiwanese cultures, both of which feature cabbage prominently. In Hawai’i, kalua pig almost always comes with steamed cabbage, while a Qing Dynasty-era jadeite cabbage occupies a significant place in Taiwan’s National Palace Museum. That means Yang says diners can expect a cabbage dish on the Piglet & Co. menu “99 percent” of the time, and it’ll almost always feature pork as a secondary component.
Though it’s been rolled off the menu for now in favor of a charred arrowhead cabbage salad, the restaurant has become known for its charred savoy cabbage dish. First, Yang confits a hunk of cabbage in pork lard, imbuing the vegetable with smoky, meaty flavor, before grilling it over binchotan and brushing it with piquant black pepper gravy. It’s become one of the most popular items on the menu, and the staff usually enjoys roasted green cabbage for family meal once a week. “Cabbage is usually always the secondary component, it’s never quite the star,” Yang says. “For us, we wanted to play off that.”
At Mexican restaurant Otra in Lower Haight, chef Nick Cobarruvias has been serving charred cabbage since day one. Like Yang, he prefers a savoy cabbage — though he’ll use arrowhead or napa in a pinch — which he chars over high heat with nothing more than salt and pepper. Then it’s served with a made-in-house smoked bone marrow sauce, and finished with a splash of vinegar and pecan dukkah inspired by a family recipe. Letting the cabbage center the plate instead of an animal protein was no accident. “We wanted to think about adding protein to dishes without really making it a star,” Cobarruvias says. “So the thinking was this awesome, delicious vegetable deserves to stand on its own. How can we elevate it slightly without changing the entire thing?”
As for cabbage stepping into the spotlight on an increasing number of San Francisco restaurant menus, Cobarruvias says he’s not all that surprised. It’s an affordable and versatile ingredient — and readily available during the winter thanks to the large number of Northern California farmers who grow it. But all those reasons aside, Cobarruvias says savvy diners shouldn’t overlook all the cabbage dishes out there this winter. They might just be some of the strongest items on the menu. “If you came to my house and I just gave you charred cabbage and threw it on a plate you’d be like, what the fuck is this? Put some effort into it,” Cobarruvias says. “So, I guess that's a little bit of our thought there. If you’re gonna put cabbage on the menu, you better be really confident that it’s good.”