Saturday, March 03, 2012

A Pilgrimage to Herbivore

As noted below in my post from last week about my first experience with flight, I recently traveled to the San Francisco Bay area for a rare vacation. My intention had been to track down as many vegan restaurants as I could within reasonable distance and to sample some of their fare. I quickly found out that Berkeley, where I was staying, is overflowing with a huge number of restaurants offering up more food options than this hapless French-Canadian could handle. Most meals with my non-vegan host Joshua ended up shared in the wide variety of Korean, Taiwanese, Indian and Mediterranean restaurants to which he introduced me, few of them vegan, but all of them with numerous clearly-marked vegan selections. (I'll definitely elaborate upon this in a future post.) My solo exploring is what twice brought me to a place about which I'd only ever read on the internet, often from from others who live on or have traveled to the West coast.

Herbivore: A Backgrounder

Herbivore: The Earthly Grill has three restaurants in the Bay area. Two are in San Francisco and its most recently-opened location is at 2451 Shattuck in downtown Berkeley. All locations are vegan and feature an international menu. The Berkeley location has a really laid back atmosphere and left me surprised with its affordable prices. During my visits I saw that it attracts people of all ages and backgrounds, whether vegan or non-vegan. I had been to a couple of vegan restaurants a few years back in the Philadelphia area, but nothing with as extensive a menu as what I ended up gawking at just outside this restaurant's front door upon arrival, almost afraid to go inside before weighing at least a couple of options lest I end up drooling over a menu at my table for hours.

I hadn't been sure of what to expect of the place in terms of either service or atmosphere, although I'd heard enough recommendations concerning the food to have a pretty good idea that
I wouldn't walk away horribly disappointed. My biggest issue as it turns out, was what the heck to try first. For those of you who don't live in large urban areas (and I'm guessing that many My Face Is on Fire readers fall into this category), you probably understand what it's like, if you do choose to eat out, to scan a menu hoping to find something--anything--that's vegan-friendly. There's usually not much deliberation involved; you find an item or two on the non-vegan menu and you order it, grateful for it and relieved that you're not actually the 'picky' eater your friends and family may sometimes accuse you of being so that you're content enough with whatever it is that ends up on your plate.

When faced with dozens of possible options, though--whoa! I hail from a big-town-pretending-to-be-a-small-city where the closest thing we have to a vegan restaurant is a juice bar that serves up a couple of randomly selected mostly-raw entrees a day, but with no guarantee from one day to the next that those entrees won't contain a bit of egg or involve some sort of cream-based sauce. It's a crap-shoot at best. The feeling of having every single thing on the menu from which to choose is a strange feeling to someone like me. Herbivore left me embarrassed at just how long it took me to figure out where the hell to begin with what I desperately hoped would be a a prolonged fling with it during my visit to the area.

I decided to indulge and to order something I keep forgetting I love as much as I love (a grumbling thanks to my cheap juicer's having broken down some time ago): I ordered a small glass of carrot juice. More specifically, it was carrot-ginger-lime juice and it was simply amazing. I quickly made a mental note to start saving up for a good juicer as soon as I got back to Canada; it's well overdue. Since I had spent the previous five days enjoying Korean, Indian and Egyptian food (as well as what could qualify as some vegan-friendly junk-food), I was drawn to the idea of selecting something that felt pretty back-to-the-basics and maybe even something akin to comfort food. I chose Herbivore's Lentil Loaf, which comes with mashed potatoes, sauteed greens and crostini bread, with a choice of either roasted beet sauce or a tomato-sesame salsa. I chose the former, ever a lover of beets, although given the chance to have this again I think I'd opt for the salsa for a bit more zing.

I hadn't noticed on the menu that the entrees come with salad, and the one they brought me almost immediately could almost have been a small meal in itself. I'm used to limp mesclun mix or dodgy romaine when ordering salads back home. These greens, though... sigh! They were firm and crisp, tossed with red cabbage, a bit of cuke and a perfect tangy Dijon dressing, topped with a few token cherry tomato halves and grated beets. I'd hardly had a chance to dig in (thanks to my food photo fetishism which led to my snapping away photos of the aforementioned salad for several minutes and then typing away about it) when the entree was brought out. It was a lot of food! The mashed potatoes were wonderfully fluffy and generously coated with mushroom gravy. The lentil loaf and roasted beet sauce were earthy and subtle, and although I'd initially thought the sauteed greens--mostly kale--a bit too salty, a drizzle of lemon juice transformed 'em; alternating bites of them with the loaf and beet sauce, I realized how nicely everything on the plate balanced out. The crostini was crisp on the outside and warm and soft in the center and just right for sopping up gravy (if one can admit to 'sopping' in a restaurant review). The truth is that five days into my visit, I was enjoying what was quite possibly one of the best hearty vegan restaurant meals I'd ever had.

My second visit to Herbivore was not meant to be my last. The place was busy. It was a Saturday and just crawling up to dinnertime. I started with a coffee and not unlike almost all of the coffee I enjoyed during my stay in the Bay area, it was strong and delicious and served up with a side of soy milk (which isn't often an option in these parts, although the independently-owned coffee shops around Fredericton are coming around with the increasing demand for dairy alternatives). I had a lengthy mental checklist of dishes I was determined to try before leaving Berkeley. From the Starters section of the menu, I'd spied Nachos (vegan nachos when dining out in Fredericton = soggy cheeseless nachos). The Salads section? The Raw Kale Salad was a huge temptation, and given my recent obsession with Thai cuisine, I was quite curious about the Green Papaya Salad. The Entrees section of their menu left my head spinning: Ravioli, Red Curry, Quinoa Cake, Quesadillas, Lemongrass Noodles and their Macaroni and Cheese were all high on my list of things I was tempted to try. I was definitely planning to have their pizza--at least once! During this second visit, I almost gave in and ordered the Phillo Dough Pie ("filled with spinach, tofu, cheese, mushrooms, onions, capers, artichoke hearts with roasted red pepper sauce and sauteed greens"), but since I anticipated returning at least twice, once to take my host out to Sunday brunch and again by myself on my last day in the Bay area, I decided to opt for a more simple and familiar selection.

I'd had a vegan "chicken" Philly cheese steak sandwich in Philadelphia a few years earlier (and subsequently at home again a few times from 'Kitchen Chez Mylène' when my Pennsylvanian ex visited me in Canada). For some reason, it felt right to revisit it here at Herbivore over 3000 miles from home (and something like 2300 miles from Philadelphia). I ordered two sides with it--the salad with the Dijon dressing, and their potato salad (made with carrots, celery, red onions, parsley and Vegenaise). The sandwich felt a little decadent. The French bread was soft and fresh and just barely crusty on the outside. The chicken substitute and the grilled onions and peppers were plentiful and topped with a scandalous amount of gooey Daiya cheese. I don't often buy cheese substitutes at home and tend to be frugal with the Daiya I do get from time to time because of its price. Herbivore certainly didn't skimp.

I regretted having ordered two sides with it, though. I'd opted for the tossed green salad, my taste buds still fondly imprinted with my previous salad experience there, but the smallish handful of greens wasn't as crisp and impressive this time around. Also, although I'd been charged the full price for it as a side, the portion seemed a little less than half the size of the side salad a customer beside me received with his own sandwich. The potato salad was saucy and although I'd been expecting something more creamy and mild from the Vegenaise listed in the ingredients, it was a little bit more vinegary than expected, but this worked perfectly to complement the milder cheese taste of the cheese steak sandwich.

So? If you're ever in the San Francisco Bay area, you'd be a little silly to pass up stopping into one of Herbivore's three locations. The number and variety of selections on the menu are almost embarrassing. The food in Berkeley was oh-so-far from disappointing and the service was fast with both attentive staff and what I gleaned was a really efficiently-run kitchen. The Berkeley location is bright and has an uncluttered feel to it and even offers a bit of outdoor seating. Calling ahead for dinner reservations might not be a bad idea, particularly for more than two people. My only other heads up concerns the noise level. As with most places with hard surfaces and where people can sometimes be seated closely together, it can get a little loud when it's busy. If you combine this with the noise of whatever contraption it is they use to make their beverages, it's possible that someone with noise sensitivity issues might find it a bit much, which is easily solved by stopping by at times other than peak hours. When I dropped in a few days later with my Bay area host, hoping for a leisurely brunch over a shared Sunday New York Times, the clatter left him asking that we relocate to a different location. I don't mean to overstate this, however. During the two solo visits I made, one during the early afternoon and the other just at the very beginning of the dinner rush, noise had not really been much of an issue at all.

I really do hope with all of my wee blackened heart that at some point in the future, my travels involve a return to Berkeley; if or when they do, another meal (or three) at Herbivore will definitely be a must.

Herbivore on Urbanspoon


Abby Bean said...

So many vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants in the NY metro area and I still have the same issue of indecision and ultimate over-ordering b/c we've been programmed to take what we can get as opposed to choosing from copious options. What a great problem!

Barbara DeGrande said...

Thank you for sharing, Myléne. We are so fortunate to have a Loving Hut located near us in the DFW area, as well as two Spiral Diners, some vegan food trucks, a raw restaurant, and a few other all vegan restaurants. the first time I went to an all vegan restaurant, I took forever to decide what to try! Now I hear about all the things I missed and know I must go back soon.

While I have never been to Berkeley, I have lived near San Francisco and would recommend next time travelling north to the Wine Country in the Redwood Empire - I used to live right on the Russian River in a small town that was incredibly beautiful and used to sport an all vegan restaurant, too.