Lunching and Gathering

Since the locally sourced, seasonal and very Californian restaurant Gather opened a year ago, I’d wanted to try their ultra-modern veg food. Until today, I hadn’t been able to either because of the budget or the ever-lengthy waiting list during dinnertime. Then the brilliant idea of going for lunch occurred to me, and the rest was gastronomic history.

From the building it lives in to the interior decor that screams "Napa County," Gather's conveys a rustic yet elegant vibe that makes me feel very comfortable.

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The gloomy weather called for soup of the day, which was a Puree of Brassicas with creme fraiche and cilantro. With lots of pepper to compliment the spicy vegetables and the creamy drizzle to balance the heat, this hot soup hit spots I didn't know I had.

The lunch combo (11) included the soup and half a sandwich, which in my case was a Spicy Chickpea Summer Vegetable open face sandwich with Hen of the Woods, olives, chicory and Mozzarella. I got the cheese on the side in case it was too much, but ended up eating most of it. Though the sandwich didn't feature any unique flavors, it was the best healthy comfort food I could have asked for. Probably because every component, from the bread to the greens, were of utmost quality and freshness. My biggest complaint is that the dish was almost too salty, especially those mushrooms.

We completely wiped our plates, which were portioned perfectly. Gather’s the gem of Downtown Berkeley that makes delicious food that I feel good about eating, on all accounts. I’ve gotta get back there for the dinner menu, where they offer a vegan charcuterie among other curious delicacies.

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Souley Vegan

Happy Sunday, my friends. My mind and body are in a feast-induced stupor after the meals I’ve had this weekend. S came up from Santa Cruz to visit, and we pulled out all the stops, starting at Souley Vegan, where we’ve seriously been trying to eat at for two years. They used to open during odd hours, but it improved and now they even have Sunday brunch what what! Can you blame me for loving Oakland? Only here does vegan and soul food coexist.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the restaurant looked like a soul food joint, first and foremost. There were barely any indications of veganism. Inside, it was simple and airy, like a large bar. Order at the front and wait just minutes before the food arrives.

Souley Vegan offers lots of veggie burgers, gumbo and deep-fried goodies. There's only one real option for newcomers, though.

The Everything Plate (25) with fried okra, ranch dressing, red beans and rice, herby mustard greens, steamed black eyed peas, spiced lentils, agave yams, BBQ tofu, Southern fried tofu, mac and cheez, potato salad, corn bread. Not included, but also offered were fried kale and mashed potatoes and gravy.

My first experience with fried okra wasn't a shock. I like the sliminess and with a crispy cornmeal coating, it's still enjoyable. What we really fought tooth and nail over was that vegan ranch sauce. So tangy and flavorful, while everything else on this dish was slightly bland. I got to know the bottle of hot sauce on our table real well.

The only thing I didn't completely enjoy on this plate was the BBQ tofu. Not a huge fan of chewy tofu skin and uber-smokey sauce. The beans and greens evoked my healthy home-cooked meals, but I probably wouldn't order them again. Everyone agreed that the fried tofu and mac and cheese were phenomenal and we can't wait to come back for them again. The tofu tasted so much like catfish in flavor and texture it was bizarre, and the mac and cheese reminded me of my favorite childhood lunch, tuna casserole. I felt like I was being hugged by hot blankets of soft mac and cheese, without the taste/smell of feet. (I know I just lost all my friends by admitting I hate real cheese.) Three of us struggled to finish all this food, but not a crumb was left in the end. That's how it's done son!

Of course we couldn’t finish the meal without loosening our belts for dessert. Sadly, the apple cobbler was soggy and forgettable, while the sweet potato pie tasted too sticky and sweet, without a strong flavor. If you want a hxc vegan dessert, go to one of the real bakeries in Oakland. Personally, I'd just get another round of mac and cheese.

Plans to return asap have been solidified. And newly inspired, I’ve dug out my old vegan mac and cheese recipes. Stay tuned for an even better dinner in which we eat many animals…

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Saturn Cafe

I’ve been to Saturn Cafe several times, the first time at its flagship in Santa Cruz, but never ate a proper meal until this week. Finally, moving onto main courses without being distracted by the many appetizers and salads. (Because how does anyone say no to Nacho Fries?)

Here is E, a fellow veggie, who’s particularly on a Saturn Café kick lately. With a well-deserved milkshake after a long day of work (for both of us).

E’s favorite burger, the Space Cowboy (9.50) with BBQ sauce, onion rings, fakin bacon, and cheddar. I’m love kitchen sink burgers, but this didn’t work for me. So oftenfake meat tastes too processed unless it’s done really expertly (aka made in-house) and I always think I like BBQ sauce more than I actually do. Glad I tried it, but next time I'm sticking to my standby—the portobello burger. Our delightful waiter offered to split this in half for us, with a huge pile of fries for each plate. Everyone I know who’s been to Saturn falls in love with its fried items. I think they coat it with cornstarch to give it that extra crisp.

We also split a Tuesday special—crunchy potato tacos with black beans and the house salad with cilantro dressing (7.50). I liked the variety. If you didn’t already know, I can rarely resist black beans if they’re on the menu. The tacos were a tad greasy, and next time I might ask if they could keep them soft/unfried for me. Even so, they were bland and begged for a ton of tobasco and cilantro dressing. Gringo tacos to the max.

At the end of the day, how can I complain about a meal after I’ve managed to devour it all? I'm generally not a huge fan of diner food, but I'd come back if I ever needed a hearty meal.

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Manzanita Macrobiotic Restaurant

Manzanita has been on my to-eat list for a few years. Not only is the food incredibly sustainable and the location convenient, it follows organic vegan macrobiotic guidelines, for which I have a huge soft spot. Animal rights and such food politics are great reasons to go vegan but my motivations are a bit more grounded in health/well-being (i.e. selfish). These food choices make more sense to me as an individual–local, in season, balanced and whole foods.

From the industrial factories of North Oakland springs this oasis of a restaurant. They are only open for lunch so the space can be used for a vegan Thai place at night. Talk about economic use of space! Who wants to start a 24hr cafe/discotheque with me?

Simple food, simple menu. I like food surprises so I appreciate having a limited menu at times. Manzanita basically cooks a set of dishes every day and the customer chooses between larger plates with more variety, smaller plates, a la carte, or the "simple" plate, geared towards those with specific health concerns. The simple plate is always salt and fat free.

S and I split the full meal so we could have room for one of their raw desserts. The lentil vegetable soup was spiced to perfection and felt creamy despite being fat free. The power of lentils, I tell ya.

Aside from presentation, my favorite part of this plate was the chewy, seasoned brown rice in the middle. It's all about variety. I could imagine myself making everything on this plate for myself. Sometimes that's not what I look for when I'm dining out, but I loved how at Manzanita, I felt at home--or at least in the home of a more mature, food savvy version of myself.

Raw "pumpkin" pie. Since working for Raw Bay Area, I've felt a renewed interest in raw food. The desserts at Manzanita range from raw to vegan to non-vegan, and all of them contain agave instead of sugar. I loved how the ingredients were listed right on the sign. This had butternut squash, coconut butter, dates, walnuts, agave, spices and vanilla. The aromatic mousse filling nicely complimented the heavier, chewy crust.

All in all, I’m fascinated and floored by Manzanita. Judging by the photos on the walls, it’s run by a team of Tibetan-Americans, possibly related. One of my food dreams is to own or work for a business that provides this kind of food. Food that is incredibly healthy but delicious that not only comforts people while they’re eating, but after they leave the table, knowing they are filled with nutrition. I have found my restaurant. Seeing something like this thriving in Oakland is so exciting and inspiring! Oh yeah, to make things even better, I had this on my birthday, before yoga and barhopping. Balance, right.

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Gracias Madre!

S visited for two weeks during my birthday (or, as I like to think of it, for my birthday) and stayed with me most of the time. On one warm, January eve, we hit up Yoga to the People in the Mission (gorgeous studio!) with H and followed it up with some serene and spiritual Totally Inauthentic Vegan Mexican Food for Non-Mexican People at Gracias Madre. I’d been curious about this place for years, started by the same couple behind Cafe Gratitude, and after hearing mixed reviews finally got to try their organic vegan food.

At the least we caught the mariachi band while they were making their way down the street.

I'd been craving horchata all day, and the $5 on this small cup was worth it. Not sure if it's usually vegan, but this tasted no different than others I've had. The fruity sangria S got was a much more exciting choice.

Quesadillas de Calabaza Butternut squash and caramelized onion folded into tortillas with cashew nacho cheese and pumpkin seed salsa (8). All three of us felt that every dish we ate could have held back on the salt. If you remember my visit to Cafe Gratitude, I had the same problem. With such delicious organic ingredients, there should be no need to over-season, and it makes me think they're trying to mask a lack of quality/technique. Which is absurd because it was delicious otherwise. Except that, wonderful mashed sweet squash complimented the creamy cheese sauce and chewy, thick blue corn tortillas. The pumpkin seeds were a perfect savory, crunchy contrast to the tacos. I've been seeing pepitas in many vegan Mexican dishes, and it never gets old.

Sseasonal greens sautéed with fresh garlic and chiles, grilled plantains, rice, beans and salad (10). A nice sampler plate, but elements of it were also too salty. This has been a consistent problem for a lot of people I know, so I doubt it was a slip of the hand. Otherwise, a very solid plate of food with good variety (and more of those bomb tortillas on the side).

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Herbivoracious

I should get paid to write blog titles.

Twas a rainy night and A and I had one final dinner before she moves to Russia indefinitely. The original intent was to try Cha Ya (you have no idea how excited I was at the prospect of finally blogging about "vegan sushi") but it's closed all month for renovations. Luckily, Herbivore was down the street and always a nice backup...or is it?

Finding a public bathroom on Shattuck Ave. that doesn't remind me of the one in Trainspotting is challenging, but Herbivore's is possibly the nicest there is. Therefore I took photo documentation.

The ambiance is fairly straightforward modern. Maybe I have spent so long in other filthy, dark restaurants on this street that I really appreciated the airiness in here. Is it wrong of me to describe it as very "socal"?

Before our main entree was ready, our cute waitress brought us the ubiquitous side salad. Lightly dressed, gingery and slightly creamy. I always enjoy this.

Three years ago, my friend had moussaka at a very authentic Greek restaurant in Chicago and I was super curious. Finally, I could try the vegan version (~10) with alternating layers of eggplant and potato, stuffed with soy protein, tofu ricotta, mushrooms, zucchini, peppers, and spinach all bathed in marinara.

I loved the crostini with a hint of garlic olive oil on the side, dipped in marinara. Unfortunately, the moussaka was not what I expected. The potatoes were a little undercooked (but maybe some people like a little crunch). Maybe this is culinary blasphemy but I was expecting something like mashed potatoes. Mashed potatoes with marinara...why don't people eat this?! I am going to try it one day and make a fortune. It was dull dish all around, though plenty salty. Since there weren't enough herbs or standout flavors, I would've loved to sprinkle on some chili flakes, had it been available. Sometimes I love Herbivore for the extensive menu, but the trade off is that there are no Super Special dishes to wow you.

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Millenni”yum”

A couple days ago I made some reservations for Millennium, the highest rated, 100% vegan fine dining restaurant in San Francisco. It’s located in the center of downtown, inside a fancy old hotel. Paired with the drapey walls and net-like lights, it felt like a dark circus inside. The hostesses are slightly uppity, but our waitress and the busser was a joy. And the food…ah…the high this meal left me in should easily last through the rest of the holidays.

This was my first time ordering a prix fixe meal, and the last one I'll have in a long time! The Frugal Foodie deal lets you choose an appetizer, entree, and dessert for $39, with an optional wine parings for an extra $12. I chose the black bean torte to start...

and keeping with the theme, the tamale to follow. S had the oyster mushrooms, which was the better choice.

The torte was delicious, especially in my extreme state of hunger, but it did not shout in excitement. Perhaps going the Latin route wasn't the wisest choice, since I make perfectly good beans at home all the time.

However the tamale saved the day! Apple salsa and butternut squash brought out the sweet cornmeal, the bitter and smoky brocollini satisfied my obsession with chlorophylic food, and the presentation was clearly something spesh. This was twice the size I was expecting. I can put away a lot of food, but after this the prospect of dessert was a little daunting.

I chose the pumpkin cheesecake on a brownie crust with cranberry chutney from a menu of fairy run of the mill desserts (chocolate cake, mousse, rice pudding). It took several mini-breaks before I could finish the whole thing, but finish it I did. Like a wounded soldier, I was in pain, but I had my pride.

I feel so lucky to have been able to have this “weekend getaway”! Next time I’ll probably stick to the main courses, to make it easier on the stomach and purse. Every entree is generously portioned and delicious (we spoke a lot to the woman dining next to us, whose dishes looked even better than ours and also gave some restaurant recommendations) so I can’t wait to find another occasion to go!

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