Sunday, July 29, 2007

Meat-Free San Francisco Reviews

The low-down on some of San Francisco’s most notable vegetarian restaurants

Cafe Gratitude
For all the positive reviews I’ve written of places that were slightly less than perfect, for every overlooked flaw in flavor, for every forgiven server who was blindly ignorant of the menu -- for every criticism I have held back about a restaurant or dish, I am here unleashing. And why not? When a restaurant not only names its entrees “I Am Elated” and “I Am Sensational,” but also demands that customers order using those bitterly granola-crunchy euphemisms, that business is setting itself up for pot shots. I highly doubt that a place so nice and spiritual would respond to my negativity with anything less than an embracing ahimsa, and so it is with this guileless sense of security that I am about to plainly rip into Cafe Gratitude.

Cafe Gratitude is a raw food restaurant in the Bay Area with at least three locations: one in the Mission, one in the Inner Sunset, and one in the East Bay.

The most treacherous problem for this eatery is the menu naming convention. When I eat out, I want to enjoy myself. I want to feel immense pleasure and maybe just a touch of gluttony for my food, and I want to bitch with my dining partner about life, work, significant others, local politics, and the last three movies I’ve seen. I like complaining -- maybe not all the time, but there is a certain balance that comes with griping from time to time over a glass of pinot grigio. It keeps my life and my sanity in check.

Cafe Gratitude, unfortunately, is like that hippie friend we all had in college who became so perpetually stoned by the third semester that she had all but obliterated her own sense of humor. One would hope that somewhere among the “Contentment” and “Cheerfulness” and “Prosperity” on the menu, there might somewhere linger, possibly among the desserts or smoothies, a dish called “I Am Pissed at my Boss” or “I Am Having a Bad Hair Day,” something a normal person would say, something to show that Cafe Gratitude is in touch with reality and doesn't take itself too seriously.

Yet, this lifeless vegan disaster limps far from reality.

I “get” that restaurant food or take-out food can, and often should, be healthful. I get that. Consumers require choice. I also get that vegetarians and vegans should have plentiful options. I get that. What I don’t get is why a restaurant would sap all the enjoyment out of a meal, from the presentation (it’s about a nice as first-class airplane food) to the temperature (everything was stone cold) to the texture (I ate something that was indistinguishable from Robin Hood’s green felt hat fabric) in search of reinventing vegetarianism.

My friend and I, on a Tuesday night out for dinner started with the “I Am Insightful” green samosas ($8), a glass of Prosecco ($6) for me, which was haplessly served in a standard wide-mouth wine glass, and a glass of house red wine ($8) for my friend. Four triangles, dark green not unlike the color of algae in a neglected fish tank, were each dotted with a lighter green blob. They were fanned out on a small salmon-colored plate. We stared at them as if they were thoroughly dead things for a full minute before putting them to our mouths. The blob, a fresh mint chutney, was wonderful, spicy, and fragrant. Inside, the samosas were filled with a fine hash of parsnips, macadamia nuts, and carrots. I ate with an open mind, but was entirely turned off by the fact that the filling was chilled. Those garnishing light green mint chutney blobs were the highlight of the whole meal.

The “I Am Passionate” marinara pizza ($10) resembled pizza about as closely as the cold green triangles resembled samosas. Imagine a slab of uncooked brown bread, that dense and mealy staple of Eastern Europe, layered with greens and dotted with halved cherry tomatoes. This clearly was not pizza. A squeeze-bottle swizzle of unidentifiable white sauce zigzagged across the top. Nothing about the dish carried flavor or heart or soul. And again, everything was stone cold. Not even the greens were at room temperature.

My friend ordered the vegan lasagna with an equally stupid name, which was prepared with “cheese” made of cashew nuts. We eyed the plate hesitantly before eating it, imagining how much fat must be a serving of “nut cheese,” as if nuts or cheese aren't fat enough on their own. The lasagna noodles were a pale green, and again the dish just didn’t have any significant flavor. She ate less than half of it and took the rest home. Two days later I asked if she had returned to the weird vegan leftovers and she said, “No. I just threw it out” -- the hallmark of an unpleasant meal.

If “raw” food must never be heated to more than 106 or 116 degrees for fear of killing off enzymes, then at least heat it to 102 so it’s not stone cold and dead on the plate in front of me. If you’re going to describe the food as “pizza,” at least pretend to heat and melt the thing that’s posing as the cheese. If samosas are to be prepared in the kitchen, but they cannot be deep fried, at least coat them in a luscious and fruity olive oil so as to at least fake their decadence. And for the love of all things delicious, if I order a glass of Prosecco, at least have the decency to serve it to me in a champagne flute.

The next time I’m looking for something raw in the Inner Sunset, I’ll go to Pluto's and, for less than $6, order a big salad with whatever I like in it. And I'll take a Fat Tire in the bottle. Thanks.

The docile sheep who flock to -- and work at -- Cafe Gratitude can keep their “Sacred,” “Inspired,” and “Joyful” ways, but count me out. At least the experience has taught me one thing: never eat anywhere that requires you to order your food on their terms, whether it’s the Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity Breakfast or an I Am Grateful dinner. It smacks of affectation, degradation, and cult-like behavior.



Golden Era Vegetarian Restaurant
Speaking of cults...

One of my co-workers who counts himself among the world’s pickiest eaters and a strict vegetarian at that, started raving about a place called Golden Era in the Tenderloin when I told him I was working on this article. He said, “The food is so good. They even have a vegetarian pho. The best part is it’s owned by a Vietnamese vegetarian cult and there are pamphlets in the front of the restaurant in a couple of different languages about ‘The Supreme Master,’ a bleach-blonde Asian woman who’s the head of the cult! It’s freaking great!”

"Oh my god, I’m in!” I said, adding a little squeal of delight.

So one day at work, we called in an order to pick up. Perusing the menu and reading some recommendations from other food enthusiasts online, my heart was torn in three or four directions at once. First, because I adore Vietnamese food but tend to not eat beef, I was immediately drawn to the vegetarian “beef” pho ($6.50). Second, I lingered over the descriptions of a couple of specialties, like house rice clay pot ($7.95) with “chicken,” and steamed soy “fish” dish described as “make your own spring roll,” with rice paper, lettuce, cilantro, and mint ($11.50). A gourmet “chicken” over rice dish topped with lemon grass sauce ($7.75) caught my eye as well.

In the end, I felt overwhelmed with options and ordered vermicelli with fried rolls and tofu ($6.50), only to realize later that I my lunch was rather unadventurous (even though it was delicious and absolutely fresh and fragrant), given the emphasis of this particular restaurant on fake meats. Golden Era adoringly puts in quotation marks around all its "chicken," "beef," "fish" and "pork," and upon my first visit, I had failed to venture into the world of quotation-marked meat.

So I went back.

On visit number two, I couldn't help myself and got the pho. I’ve never had real pho before because I generally steer clear of beef, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. A two-pound container of broth was almost clear and slightly sweet and contained two kinds of tofu and a few slabs of pink “meat.” I dumped a small Chinese food take-out box of noodles (since we ordered to go, the noodles were kept separate to keep them from getting soggy) into the broth and loosened them with a pair of chopsticks. The two varieties of fried tofu were superb: chewy and flavorful. The pink meat, however, was Spam-like, and since Spam is already widely known as “fake meat,” I’d call this stuff fake fake-meat. It had the striating marks of slab-cut ham or pressed chicken, with small strings of fake fat and everything. It was both intriguing and disturbing.

Golden Era on the whole serves great traditional Vietnamese appetizers and entrees, with mint, cucumber, lime, peanuts -- all those refreshing flavors you would expect to find in this eastern cuisine. The only difference is there’s a healthy helping of fake fake-meat top. The value is high, with most plates costing about $7 for a heaping portion. For lunch, you could easily split one entree and one appetizer between two people and feel satisfied. Try any of the appetizer rolls, the pho, or the vermicelli. My fried ordered (though I missed out on trying) the “chicken” drumsticks, which were deep fried to a cherry-wood-colored crisp and served on sticks -- or should I call them, “chicken” “bones?”


Greens Restaurant and Millennium
On the higher end of vegetarian dining, San Franciscan have two competing, yet distinct options: Greens Restaurant in the Fort Mason Center and Millennium in the refurbished Hotel California. Both restaurants serve sophisticated California-style food, and both strive to intimate a more classic dining room ambiance, Millennium in the form of a New York steak house bistro, and Greens as a view-of-the-harbor seafood restaurant. Of course, there’s not a porter house, filet mignon, surf-and-turf combo, nor trout almondine anywhere on either menu.

I went to Millennium almost two years ago and remember having one of the best servers I even encountered, a fellow who was courteous, laid-back, and never stuck up his nose at any of our questions about oddly named foods, all of which were inevitably a different kind of mushroom. (Millennium strongly plays up mushrooms in almost all its dishes to add an earthiness to the vegetarian fare.) I remember with drooling accuracy a chowder made of black and red beans that was like a southern chili in all its Creole-spiced glory. And I remember my food unconscious waking up with a new breath of life from the sorbet trio at the end of the meal, which paired black pepper with lush summer fruits and cabernet.

Since then, I’ve read a number of reviews of Millennium that lambasted the wait staff. Was I lucky that night two years ago or has the service gone to the dogs? It’s been too long to directly compare Millennium and Greens blow-by-blow, but I think the overarching decision between the two comes down to location, atmosphere, and most importantly, their extremely different philosophies on how to craft a vegetarian menu. Millennium, as I mentioned, holds a strong suit when it comes to exotic mushrooms, but Greens offers a more simplified, and in my book, a possibly more polished lineup. Take a look at the online menus: Millennium’s makes me want to research ingredients and set my mind wondering on how certain pairings really work, while Greens’ makes me daydream about the next time I can eat there.

My friend and I enjoyed a two-hour long dinner at Greens not long ago and had both decided well before our 7:15 reservation precisely what we wanted to order. For me, it was “anything that comes in filo dough or puff pastry” and the mesquite grilled tofu and vegetable brochettes served over Israeli couscous (sometimes called pearl couscous) with pistachios and cherries. My friend homed in on the fresh pea raviolis, enormous and soft pillows filled with peas and fava beans, glistening in meyer lemon butter with herbs and Parmesan Reggiano. We began by splitting the Mediterranean sampler appetizer platter, which had one item in filo. Also on the plate was a wonderful French green lentil salad, beets and mache, and a few other scattered items, all of which offered pleasant bits and bites but wasn’t by any stretch bountiful. I think we shared four little quarter-cut pieces of beet between us.

For my entree, cherries and pistachios remind me of a childhood dessert I used to eat around Christmastime, when my mother would (and sometimes still does) make cherry Jello with a blob of pistachio pudding floating in the middle, so the couscous dish definitely strummed my nostalgia strings. The brochettes, which were more or less skewers, also brought out the kid in me as I decided whether to pick them up by the stick and nibble away or slide the near golf ball sized hunks of zucchini, corn, mushrooms, and tofu off with a fork (summoning up my sense of decorum, I chose the latter). My girlfriend’s pea ravioli was positively heavenly, the raviolis themselves green from what I presume was pureed peas mixed directly into homemade pasta, the meyer lemon butter sauce not overly buttery nor acidic, and the fava beans al dente.

Throughout dinner, the service was somewhat negligent; my friend had to ask multiple times before receiving a second glass of wine, though by the time we rolled around to munching a dessert plate of three different biscotti (a classic anise almond was the standout cookie for me), my coffee cup was filled every time it reached below the halfway mark.

Still, something is lacking in the overall look. From photographs, it seems as if the seating provides a scenic view of the harbor and yachts -- but that’s only if you’re lucky enough to be at one of the tables directly next to the windows. Otherwise, the view is hampered by at least two rows of diners.

All the buildings in the Fort Mason Center are a bit odd, often covered in that no-shag library carpeting, and Greens tries to set itself a cut above with installed wood beams and rustic pane glass. But something doesn’t come together and the places feels a bit off. The chairs are straight backed with a thick straw weave seat, which certainly beckon to a seaside clam shack but are uncomfortable and out of place. However, the food outshines all this, and if I were to return, the only change I’d make is to request a table at the window way ahead of time.

Note: Although I had originally saved a menu from Greens to record the price of the dishes we consumed, I must admit that it became lost in a recent cross-country move. However, from what I remember, the sampler appetizer plate cost somewhere in the $13 range, and each entree was between $15 and $22, roughly speaking. My apologies for the lack of accuracy.


Herbivore
Herbivore is the little black dress of vegetarian restaurants. It’s dressed up even when it’s dressed down, and everyone can pull it off. The menu is a bit all over the map -- you can order a burrito, or an Indonesian noodle salad, or shawarma as I did -- but at least you can order something that tickles your fancy at the moment. This restaurant now sports three locations in the Bay Area, though I went to the one on Divisadero. There’s a long hallway for a dining room stretching way back to a back patio, so don’t be deceived by the narrow look of the place from the outside.

My friend and I headed over to the neighborhood for dinner on a Saturday night and had no problem getting a table right away. Zataar on grilled French bread ($3.95) to start was a bit heavy on the spice blend for my taste, though my eating partner wiped up every bit of it that fell from the bread. I was pleased as punch that Herbivore had Fat Tire on draught, but lo and behold, the tap had run dry. No matter. A $4 Blue Moon served with the orange slice sufficed in its place.

If I thought I had a hard time deciding what to order at Golden Era, the same could be said for Herbivore. I wanted the moussaka ($9.25) for the eggplant, marinara sauce and crostini. I wanted gnocchi with my choice of sauce, but thought that was too safe an option at a vegetarian-only restaurant. I really wanted to want the lentil loaf ($9.95), a take on traditional meat loaf starring my favorite legume, but it seemed a bit too warm that night to hunker down with a bed of mashed potatoes. Thankfully, the lentil loaf ended up in front of my friend, so I did get a nibble of it. What I settled on was the shawarma ($7.25) with grilled seitan (a wheat gluten that is tofu-like in texture, also sometimes called “wheat meat”) with a simple side salad topped with shoestring-cut beets. The seitan had been marinated in lemon, if I’m not mistaken, but the smell and taste of it gave off a chemically smell, not unlike certain perfumes. I liked the shawarma much better when I dug out some of the wheat meat, which was snapped up by my zataar-loving friend. The flat bread spiked with pickles, tahini, hummus, and onions was good enough for me to enjoy on its own. That same dish can be ordered with eggplant and potatoes, though I’m not sure if that’s in place of or in addition to the seitan. The lentil loaf was more like a lentil griddle cake, but it was homey served aside a heaping of mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy, sautéed greens, and two slices of crostini served with a choice of beet sauce for dipping or tomato relish; she requested both and they were equally good, though very different in their levels of sweet (beet) and savory.

Herbivore has salads, sandwiches, beer, desserts -- enough to keep any vegetarian or meat eater pretty well fed. It feels a bit like a San Francisco creperie/diner ... until it feels a little bit more interesting than that. The vegan carrot cake ($5.50), for example, was extraordinary. The frosting was barely sweet, the cake itself was doused with huge walnut pieces, and the carrots kept the whole of it moist and colorful.

Herbivore is the kind of place where I wouldn't feel uncomfortable with a mixed group of vegetarians and omnivores. Whereas the fake fake-meat of Golden Era might scare some people away, or the heightened cuisine of Greens might put a few meat eaters on edge ("Am I really going to enjoy ravioli without meat?"), Herbivore feel relaxed. The menu is lengthy, but there’s something for everybody.



RESTAURANT INFORMATION
Cafe Gratitude
1336 9th Ave.
www.cafegratitude.com


Golden Era Vegetarian Restaurant
572 O'Farrell St.
415-673-3136
www.goldeneravegetarian.com


Greens Restaurant
Building A, Fort Mason Center
415-771-6222
www.greensrestaurant.com


Millennium Restaurant
580 Geary St.
www.millenniumrestaurant.com


Herbivore Restaurant
531 Divisadero
415-885-7133
www.herbivorerestaurant.com


OTHER VEG-ONLY RESTAURANTS IN SF CITY LIMITS:
Ananda Fuara
1298 Market St.
http://anandafuara.com


Medicine Eat Station
161 Sutter St.
415-677-4405
www.medicinerestaurant.com


Enjoy Vegetarian (Chinese)
754 Kirkham St.
415-682-0826
(no known web site)


Alive! (Raw)
1972 Lombard St.
www.aliveveggie.com


See also www.vegsf.com for additional recommendations.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Postcard from New York

Long Island seafood, Vietnamese crab, and Korean barbecue

In late June, I spent nearly two weeks in New York for my sister’s graduation, mostly out on the north shore of Long Island where I grew up, but also in Manhattan a bit. After the graduation ceremony, six other family members and myself headed out to a classic Long Island dinner at the Old Dock Inn in Kings Park.

The Old Dock Inn
The Old Dock Inn is situated at the northernmost end of a winding tree-shaded road. There’s nothing but the restaurant and a strip of beach from the parking lot. The feeling is that of being secluded among the scenery and the occasional fishing boat trudging through the marshy inlets. This is not the ocean, it’s the Long Island Sound, a calm body of water facing a curvaceous coastline, marked by sandbars and small bird islands, where sand pipers, cranes or herons (I never learned the difference between them), and common sea gulls take respite.

We arrived sometime around 7 in the evening, the slanting sun casting wonderful light into the dining room, which featured broad pane-glass windows on three sides.

If the setting and view are examples of classic Long Island style, then so is the menu—in both the food and the little nautical drawings that decorate each page. Seafood options are extremely plentiful; even ordinary fish, like trout, are prepared in at least three different ways. There are several surf and turf combination plates to choose from, mixed seafood entrees, and nightly specials—sauer braten was one of the plates du jour on our visit, which so obviously missed the mark that I couldn’t help but wonder if the kitchen staff was growing wearing of broiling lobster tails and boiling crab legs. Duck l’orange is on the regular menu is well, don’t ask me why.

Nearly everyone in my party ordered a classic seafood dish: broiled scallops ($18.95) served in a clay dish for me, two different variations on mixed seafood platter, two trouts stuffed with crab meat ($14.50), one mountain of shellfish with linguine ($19.95), and one meat dish which lost my attention entirely. I’m just too into seafood. Although dinners come with bread and butter (skip the bread altogether), Greek salad, mixed steamed vegetables, and a choice of potato, I say hold off on all the extras and save yourself for the seafood. It’s off-the-boat fresh. Don’t bother to order dessert, either, but do hang out over an after dinner drink and enjoy the view.

The Old Dock Inn
798 Old Dock Road,
Kings Park NY
631-269-4118
www.olddockinn.net
Reservations recommended


Fatty Crab
Almost a year ago, in New York magazine’s September 2006 “100 Best Cheap Eats” issue, I read about Fatty Crab. I heard it was a sensational Vietnamese spot that specialized in, what else? Crab.

My friend and I easily found Fatty Crab just two blocks below 14th Street on Hudson for a very late lunch (it was nearly 4 when we sat down). Only one other table was occupied, but the staff of five seemed to ignore us for some time after we arrived at the table. The staff were all twenty-something New Yorkers, the majority of them caucasian (there were possibly two people on staff whom I saw that looked Southeast Asian). I don’t point that fact out for any other reason than to set the scene. In my mind, I had expected Fatty Crab to be an authentic Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall, likely family run by first- or second-generation immigrants, with stellar food in the $6-$12 range, and market prices for crab. That’s what I envisioned based on the very general information I had.

Fatty Crab is none of those things. It’s a little bit trendy, but still relaxed and comfortable. Flat red and gold pillows line the bench-style seating against the wall, and the lighting fixtures were kind of cool in a “recycled art” kind of way.

We shared two dishes, the Malay fish fry ($14) and the Dungeness chili crab ($32). Four crispy batter-fried hunks of fish sat atop a small bowl of rice accented with green chiles for heat, cilantro for flavor, and a slightly sweet and sticky dark orange-colored sauce. It’s hard to justify this dish as a “cheap eat” or as a family-style dish because the portion size seemed to say,“Dinner for one.” The crab, on the other hand, was a pile of thick legs and three bodies jumbled into a tall bowl, lathered in spicy red sauce, topped with three thick-cut triangles of white toast. The sauce was wonderful, especially on the toasts, but the crab was messier than any other crab I’ve ever eaten on account of it being completely drenched in sauce. As we cracked through joints and center pieces, I lost some of my discardable bits in the sauce, which for later ended up spooned onto a hunk of bread and then promptly spit out into a napkin.

I would have much preferred the sauce to be served separately—crab is messy enough when it is simply boiled. Our bill, after this and one or two drinks, was $64 ... for two! For lunch!

I’ve heard the duck is worthwhile at Fatty Crab, and I certainly would not turn down another bowl of the Malay fish, but know what you’re getting into before dining here. It’s not a hole in the wall, and it’s not cheap eats. If you can overlook the inattentive service and messiness of cracking crab and losing bits of the shell in a pool of sauce, by all means, have a crack at it.

Fatty Crab
643 Hudson St., New York
212-352-3590
www.fattycrab.com
Reservations not accepted


Shilla: Korean Barbecue House
My sisters, one of their boyfriends, and I decided one day to meet up in Koreatown in Manhattan and take advantage of the local cuisine for lunch. Shilla is so close to the hustle and bustle of midtown, just two blocks from Penn Station on 32nd Street, but the lunch rush had died down by the time we arrived. The five of us were ushered up a flight of steps, down a half flight, and into a massive second floor dining room. Many of the tables seemed like they could easily seat 10 to 12 people. The windows only looked out across the street to face other windows, but they let in plenty of natural light.

It was a hot day in New York, which took a small toll on my appetite, but I did my best to sample at least half of the little condiment and snack dishes that were brought to us at the beginning of the meal. I happily slurped down a biteful of sesame-sauced cold noodles, squeezed lemon over the meat off a 8-inch fish still completely intact, chomped through something that could have been root vegetable or imitation shark meat, and chewed with a smile through a few morsels of kimchee.

Two people ordered a refreshing bi bim bop ($7.95), this one light and salad-like rather than overrun by egg. The sesame oil coated everything in the bowl without being too heavy. One of my sisters had a dish of stone-bowl cooked rice, which carried the smell and taste of toasted rice (similar almost to the smell of fresh popcorn) throughout the dish. I found it very warm and comforting, but probably not what I would have wanted on a 90-degree day. My lunch was number LB7 ($10.95), a plate of spicy charred pork tenderloin strips and onions sautéed so long, they melted in my mouth; alongside the pork, I feasted upon a huge bowl of cold vermicelli noodles in a clear cold broth mildly flavored with rice vinegar. The noodles held a half hard-boiled egg and two slices of meat (which I’d guess was beef, but may have been pork, too).

The portions were huge, the bill reasonable, and the service very attentive. Though we didn’t specifically have our minds set on going to Shilla when we got to K-town, it turned out to be a wonderfully relaxing and filling lunch, and I’d quickly recommend it to both visitors and local workers in need of a good business lunch spot. A few warnings: the bathrooms were very clean and stylish, but they are a strange set of unisex stalls with sinks outside; many of the English-language menu descriptions sound very similar, so don’t be shy to ask the servers or someone at a nearby table to elaborate.

Shilla
37 West 32nd St.
New York
212-967-1880
www.shillnyc.com
Shilla also has a California location as well in Gardena (16944S Western Ave.)