Saturday, January 2, 2010

An Owls View

I would like to pose the following question. Do you apply affirmative action principles when evaluating vegetarian restaurants? I often find myself feeling quite ambivalent over this issue. My compassionate side says that the food, good, bad or indifferent should be secondary to the fact that for every vegetarian meal consumed fewer animals are killed and that suffering is reduced immeasurably. On the other hand, my chef –food critic says that restaurants should be judged by the quality of its food, irrespective of whether the cuisine is Italian, Indian, Vegetarian or Mexican

Many of us, in our excitement to have an additional vegetarian restaurant to choose from, all too often gloss over the fact that the food that is served is often quite bad. My concern is that too many veggie wannabes will be turned off by the food, feeling that they could never ‘’eat this way”, and we will have lost potential converts to our cause.

My wife Diana and I recently went to Millennium in SF for Thanksgiving dinner. They were serving a holiday prix fix menu which consisted of an appetizer, soup, salad, entrée and dessert. It was extremely busy when we arrived and it was great to see so many people eager to experience a vegan Thanksgiving.

I had two major complaints with the meal, the soup and dessert. The pureed soup was cold, flavorless and had the consistency of baby food. It was so bad that neither Diana nor I ever considered sending it back, feeling it was beyond restoration. There were two desserts offered, so we each tried one. Diana’s selection, a pumpkin chocolate pie was very good. My choice, a mislabeled tart, severely missed the boat. The sorbet that accompanied the tart was also lacking in any redeemable qualities. The entrée, salad and appetizer were more than acceptable, but didn’t provide the WOW factor that we were looking forward to.

A friend of mine suggested that I shouldn’t judge a restaurant by its holiday offerings, since it was unusually busy and probably wasn’t truly representative of its finest work. I understand this viewpoint, however having a prix fix menu reduces the stress in the kitchen and in some way balances out the greater number of meals served.

I’ve been going to Millennium since the mid eighties, when it was known as Milly’s in San Rafael and will continue to dine there. My observation over the years is that the appetizers and sides tend to be very good but the entrees are generally the weakest part of the menu. We tend to order a number of small plates when dining and that strategy seems to work out pretty well.

We went to the new Encuentro Café in Oakland a few weeks ago. It’s a vegetarian wine bar that is partially owned by Eric Tucker, the chef at Millennium. They serve small plate items on rather small bistro style tables so that holding a wine glass while attempting to eat, can be a bit of a challenge. The majority of the limited menu is vegan with cheese playing a feature role in the vegetarian items. I wouldn’t describe it as a destination place, but if I were in the area and wanted a glass of wine and light snack, I would consider going there. The space is rather small and I felt a bit claustrophobic after a while. My impression is that it’s more of a womans place, but that’s just me...

Our final new dining experience was at Gather, in Berkeley, a new organic restaurant in the David Brower Center on Oxford street. Its mission statement is that everything they serve is organic, with at least half the menu being vegetarian – mostly vegan. I was particularly excited because they had a vegan pizza on the menu and when I had looked in earlier, to my delight they appeared to have a wood burning oven. Much to my chagrin, the pizza crust was especially lacking in texture and flavor. I discovered that because of a Berkeley ordinance prohibiting new wood burning ovens in restaurants, their oven although looking like a wood burning oven, was powered by gas. The high heat that wood or coal can produce creates the crispy charring crust that is so desirable. The problem with the pizza was more endemic than the oven. The dough just didn’t have any life to it, maybe it didn’t proof long enough, something was just not right. The red quinoa risotto and appetizer selections were pretty good, although the serving size of the risotto was fairly small, which is a pet peeve of mine when it comes to pasta and grain dishes. For an additional twenty to thirty cents a restaurant can serve an ample portion of a grain- based entree which would make the charge of 15 – 20 dollars for 2 -3 dollars of ingredients more palatable to the public. I would go back for the pizza if they can get their dough situation squared away. It just opened and I’m sure the kitchen will work through this problem.

Even with all the bumps in the road, I’m optimistic that as more vegetarian restaurants open, competition will force the quality of the food to improve in a very organic fashion.

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