November 18, 2007
Choice Tables | San Francisco
Expanding the Frontiers of the Vegetarian Plate
By GREGORY DICUM
VEGETARIANISM is a simple idea — don't eat animals — with an ancient pedigree. According to the Vegetarian Resource Group, 4.7 million American adults are vegetarians or vegans (people who avoid all animal products, including cheese and eggs).
Yet even in San Francisco, with its countercultural and fresh food traditions, only about one in a hundred restaurants in the Zagat Survey is vegetarian. And while new vegetarian restaurants have been opening in New York and Los Angeles, San Francisco's scene has been expanding differently as beloved restaurants open new locations.
This safe approach leaves some frustrated. “We don't have enough veg restaurants that are really good and exciting,” said Aurelia d'Andrea, managing editor of VegNews, a vegetarian magazine based in San Francisco. “I'm bored by what's offered here.” The city suffers a particular lack of South Indian vegetarian restaurants.
Still, San Francisco vegans like Ms. d'Andrea have the luxury of high standards. Virtually any restaurant in the city will accommodate them, with many going far beyond the hackneyed grilled portobello. Many newer restaurants feature extensive vegetarian offerings from chefs who respect the concept, rather than treating it as an irksome neurosis.
While this may reduce demand for strictly vegetarian restaurants, it also means that these establishments can't take vegetarian customers for granted. In this competitive milieu, certain standouts are influential, delineating the frontiers of vegetarian cuisine.
Greens, run by the San Francisco Zen Center, has become an institution since opening in 1979. It is the restaurant that brought vegetarian food out from sprout-infested health food stores and established it as a cuisine in America. It is in an airy space at Fort Mason Center, on San Francisco Bay (415-771-6222; www.greensrestaurant.com); hold out for a seat by the windows to watch the sun set through the Golden Gate.
When I visited with my wife, Nina, we started with a plate of mesquite-grilled Blossom Bluff peaches ($11). Luscious and warm, the fruit was offset with the bite of arugula and watercress and creamy mascarpone, and accented with sage honey. The chef, Annie Somerville, has at her disposal the output of Green Gulch, an organic farm also operated by the Zen Center in the cool coastal air just across the bay. A plate of heirloom tomatoes with Green Gulch lettuce and buffalo mozzarella in a basil vinaigrette ($10) is the epitome of the form.
But a few dishes struck false notes. The spinach ricotta ravioli ($23) featured an earthy and garlicky — but watery — sauce over slightly underdone pasta. The mesquite-grilled brochettes ($19) were uneven: the corn was perfectly cooked but the zucchini was underdone. Still, it was delicious, with a sharp charmoula and savory, rich tofu, all served over cuminy, toothsome pearl couscous studded with pistachios and tart dried cherries.
Millennium, the other giant looming over the city's vegetarian restaurant scene, has become the gold standard of American vegan cuisine. In a cheerfully dignified space at 580 Geary Street (415-345-3900; www.millenniumrestaurant.com), Millennium draws a happy crowd of professionals, couples, and tattooed, Technicolor-haired young vegans dining with visiting parents.
Eric Tucker, the chef, is highly regarded for a polyglot style that marries ingredients and techniques from diverse cuisines with a sense of how best to celebrate Northern California's vegetable bounty. Millennium's menus are famously involved and difficult to parse — when I ate there with three friends, we were confronted with ingredients ranging from papazul to tempeh picadillo to sambal.
I have a soft spot for huitlacoche — the mushroom that grows on ears of corn and resembles distended, blackened kernels — so I ordered the masa pibes ($22.95), a steaming construction of savory, chewy hominy rounds beneath a mound of ragout made from the aforementioned fungi. The dish was set off with colorful accents: a cream of sweet corn and lobster mushrooms, plus roasted poblano emulsion and tangy, cilantro-spiked avocado-heirloom tomato salsa fresca.
Such is Mr. Tucker's skill that the food at Millennium attains a gustatory cohesion not suggested by the eclectic ingredients. The shredded Indian Red peach salad ($8.95) — which, besides tender peaches, included baby heirloom lettuce, green papaya, chili-dusted peanuts, and the sweet zing of a light Thai lime leaf dressing — blossoms on the tongue like a bouquet.
San Francisco's vegan food can be much more down-to-earth. One Sunday, Nina and I went to brunch at Herbivore, at 983 Valencia Street (415-826-5657; www.herbivorerestaurant.com; there are two other locations). Nina counts herself “90 percent vegan,” a formulation that might make militant vegans blanch, but entitled her to enjoy Herbivore's hearty and rich corn cakes ($8.50). They came smothered in black beans, salsa and guacamole alongside thick-cut rosemary potatoes. The guacamole was excellent, and the corn cakes had a perfect salty chewiness imparted by whole kernels of sweet corn.
Herbivore's menu is broad, but loses its way outside comfort food standbys. So I had a short stack of pancakes ($7.75) crammed with fat, wet blueberries and topped with a pair of curled, glistening fried bananas. Generous helpings of Earth Balance (an inspired brand of imitation butter) and sticky maple syrup guaranteed me the perfect sweet and heavy start to a Sunday.
Vegetarian traditions from the Far East are well-represented in San Francisco. Among better known restaurants are Golden Era (572 O'Farrell Street; 415-673-3136; www.goldeneravegetarian.com), and Bok Choy Garden (1820 Clement Street; 415-387-8111).
We tried the Japanese vegan restaurant Cha-Ya (762 Valencia Street; 415-252-7825) on a sunny afternoon, when the place was packed with families and cheerful groups of friends.
We dove right in, starting with shira ae ($5.50), a salad of blanched and delicately pickled vegetables served atop a thick sesame tofu dressing. Slices of lotus root and rubbery yam cake added a seafoody aroma to the beans, pressed spinach, shiitakes, and rapini. Cha-Ya's kitchen is adept at imparting umami flavors without resorting to the usual fish-based ingredients. The miso soup was richly savory, and the Cha-Ya roll ($6.75), a lightly fried inside-out roll of asparagus and carrot drizzled in thick, sweet sauce, was deeply satisfying.
Each dish was perfectly prepared. The vegetables in the sushi rolls (we had asparagus, eggplant, mushroom, and rapini nigiri rolls ($3.50 each), and avocado and mushroom uramaki ($5.25) had been cooked to the moment of perfection. A bowl of kinoko udon soup ($7.75) was heavy with chunky mushrooms: enoki, shimeji, oyster and shiitake. The broth, and the noodles, were good enough to imagine climbing into the big stoneware bowl.
Strangely, though Cha-Ya's culinary skill was flawless, the rest of the restaurant's atmosphere seemed an afterthought. Décor was spartan (at night the place is lit like a Laundromat) and service can be brusque. Our server brought the bill and attempted to hustle us out the door before we had a chance to order dessert. At first she even refused to reopen the tab, but it takes more than that to keep Nina away from a slice of vegan chocolate cake ($4). We also had a scoop of soy ice cream ($4), served with a green tea sauce that was sweet and strong, and moved us to forgive the attitude.
Our final stop could not have been more different had it been an outright steakhouse. Café Gratitude, at 2400 Harrison Street (415-824-4652; www.cafegratitude.com; there are three other locations), has the air of a theme restaurant celebrating Northern California stereotypes. The space is intimate, with big tables that encourage sharing among a crowd of Burning Man enthusiasts, New Agers and earnest world changers — in other words, a friendly and lively scene.
The restaurant's décor is derived from a board game developed by the owners and built into each table. It encourages diners to express gratitude for one another and for the bounty the universe has bestowed upon anyone likely to walk in the door. After seating us, the hostess looked in our eyes and asked, “What's great about today?”
It's all so easy to make fun of, but I chose to just go with it. Gratitude's dishes are named for uplifting adjectives, rewarding self-affirmation with sustenance. I declared that “I Am Bountiful,” “I am Rich” and “I Am Elated.”
Nearly all the food at Gratitude is raw, which means the kitchen knows secrets about fruits and vegetables hidden to most of us. Familiar raw items like juices and salads take on a special vibrancy. I Am Rich ($7) is a big wineglass filled with vermilion beet juice floated on a base of orange, carrot and lemon to magnificent and tangy effect.
But you have to let go of expectations when ordering raw analogs of cooked dishes. Nina's I Am Mahalo ($10) was billed as a Hawaiian pizza, which, through the raw looking glass, meant a pair of triangular crackers made from dehydrated nuts and seeds, topped with chunks of mango, tomato, and cashew cream. “It's hard to know what you're eating,” Nina said, dabbing her lip with a hempen napkin and reaching for her I Am Succulent ($7), an exceptional juice of grapefruit, apple, celery and mint.
It's a bewildering cuisine, developing familiar ingredients into wholly novel dishes. The results can range from the frankly gross (a lavender cashew mousse that was indistinguishable from moisturizer) to the revelatory (almond hummus singing of raw garlic).
I finished the meal with I Am Devoted ($7), a raw coconut cream pie that delineated every aspect of the perfect coconut. It was sweet, but not cloying; fragrant, but not overpowering.
As dessert arrived, we were joined by the filmmaker Maurizio Benazzo, a recent convert to raw food. “What do you think of this,” I asked him, passing over a forkful of fresh mint and raw cocoa cheesecake (I Am Cherished, $7). “Is the green color from the mint?”
“Algae. It has to be,” he said in his rolling Italian accent. He handed me his I Am Splendid ($9), a surprisingly delicious “mojito” that blends agave sweetness with the fullness of sake. “It's absurd,” he exclaimed. “It's fantastic!”
Posted by Tatiana at 11/30/07 04:27:17This is making me friggin hungry! I still need to go to Cha Ya I've heard so many good things about it. I agree, though, that they need to expand the options, especially with a large number of vegetarians and health conscious people in general, in the SF area. And the I am Mahalo has pineapple, not mango (it's like Hawaiian pizza) :P