Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Good Life

Over the course of my life in San Francisco (moved here in 2001, and was here almost every other weekend for two years prior), I have been lucky enough to dine at some of the city's top restaurants. Even better? I haven't paid for any of it. By some wonderful twist of fate, I happen to be married to a man with a sister who is married to a man with parents that love fine dining almost as much as they love their son, his wife, her brother, and his wife. Get it? Okay, so it's not like we ask or even want them to, but they always pick up the check. With them we've been to Jardiniere, Michael Mina, and Fleur de Lys. We've also been to Masa's and the French Laundry thanks to my husband's sister (engagement present and wedding gift respectively). It's these dinners that really sparked my interest in food as an art form, and there is nothing I love more than sitting down for a 4 hour meal presented in the finest setting. Now, all of these restaurants are very accommodating when it comes to diet (CALL AHEAD!), and most already offer a vegetarian menu, so it's just a matter of altering a few things to make it vegan. However, even the best of the best can fall short in this area, so I'm here to let you know which places are a sure thing for you and your fine-tuned palate.

I know it's what I'm *supposed* to say because of all the accolades and awards, but the best meal I ever had truly was from the French Laundry. Yountville is beautiful wine country, and we were on our honeymoon, so my ridiculously happy mood didn't hurt, but everything from the moment we entered until we left, 3 hours and 9 courses later, was perfect. This was the first fine dining experience where I didn't notice the absence of dairy. Often when there is a vegetarian menu available, it can be very obvious that I got the same menu, only without the cheese, or without the poached egg on top, for example. But, here, everything made perfect, delicious sense just as it was. On top of the wonderful food and atmosphere, the bonus of this dining experience was our introduction to Armando Manni olive oil. Right off the bat, I was asked if I'd like olive oil instead of butter for the bread. Of course I agreed, and this olive oil was like no other. I've since spent the ridiculous amount of money to get a case of my own shipped direct from Italy. So worth it. If you can't afford a whole case, go in with some other foodie friends and split one - you won't be disappointed.
All in all, the French Laundry is my number one spot for fine dining as a vegan.

A very close second is Fleur de Lys. This beautiful and romantic restaurant knows how to do vegetables right. That being said, it is the bread service here that I adore. :) Not only are most of the breads vegan (just ask to find out which aren't) but as soon as you finish your piece, the bread guy magically appears at your side to offer you some more. Yes, please. That alone is why I will return again and again to Fleur de Lys. But oh my god the vegan meal is unbelievable. In this case there were a few times when I visually noticed what I was missing (I was dining with a vegetarian so we had similar dishes, only his with dairy or egg) but I never missed anything in terms of taste. This place gets my vote for best fine dining in San Francisco proper.

In third place, it's a tie between Masa's and Michael Mina. Both have really great food, don't get me wrong. As good as the French Laundry or Fleur de Lys? No, but very elegant and yummy all the same. I just don't like the vibe of these places very much. A little too stuffy and business-class, and at both places I got the feeling that they couldn't understand what I, a vegan, would be doing in their establishment. As though vegans only socialize amongst ourselves. Just a vibe though, nothing was ever said and I was accommodated and had a good meal. 'Nuff said.

Lastly, in no place, is Jardiniere. I can't rank this place because I went when I was raw, and asking a restaurant to accommodate something like that is just unreasonable I think. That being said, they gave it their best shot and I had a lovely celery root salad and some kind of raw soup if I remember correctly. It was all a bit oily and salty, but hey, they tried. I'll have to go back and check out what they can do for vegans.

I think the real moral of the story here is to not shy away from fine dining. The reason these places are so open to veganism is because the demand is there. So, vegans, grab your others, and a large chunk of cash, and try some of these places. You'll be amazed by what folks "in the know" can do with food. And, stay tuned, as a trip to Gary Danko is in my future... not to mention plenty of other everyday eateries for vegans and others alike.

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