Thursday, February 28, 2013

Amber Dhara

I'd heard good things from omnivorous folk about the new(ish) Amber Dhara on Valencia Street and, being an Indian restaurant, I assumed they'd have a pretty decent selection of veggie items as well.  What I didn't expect was an entirely vegan, and incredibly delicious, 4 course tasting menu.  Dim lighting made for some terrible photos, but let me take you through it, won't you?

The amuse bouche was a papadum filled with onions, herbs, and veggies, and served with three chutneys. (The chutneys stayed on the table for the rest of the savory courses, too.  Good things, since I put them on everything!) What a flavorful bite (or two or three, actually) and lovely way to start the meal.

Next up was their fried kale appetizer.  I love anything battered and fried and I will take kale in any preparation, so this was right up my alley.  These crisp, fun, and addictive poppers, were perfectly seasoned and not greasy at all.  Amber Dhara should bag and sell these guys!

The third plate to hit the table was this eggplant.  Much like a typical bengan bharta, but with more refined and layered flavors, the eggplant was left in large chunks, rather than turned completely to mush, which I appreciated.  The almonds were a nice textural touch, and the fried lotus root and plantain chips were perfect for scooping up the savory sauce.

The last savory course was the mushroom curry.  Made with coconut milk, and served with roti (you could also get brown rice), this hearty main really hit the mark, and I'm not even a huge mushroom fan.  Well played, Amber Dhara. It was soul warming and satisfying without being too heavy... good, because there was still dessert to come!

Gluten-free and vegan, this chocolate banana cake would please the palate of any omnivore (my omni dining partner devoured hers).  The best part is that it is served warm, so it's a bit gooey on the inside, and crunchy from the walnuts on top.  Add a caramelized banana, some soy ice cream, and fresh berries and it is the absolute best way to end your tasting menu.

So, as you can see, I loved my meal and hope to get back to Amber Dhara sometime soon.  I will say one thing, however: The service was attentive to the point of intrusive.  We were asked over and over and over again if we were enjoying everything (we really were, but we'd also like to have a conversation, thanks) and it seemed like someone was always way too nearby.  At the end, the head waitress asked us to please yelp our experience, and then today they CALLED ME (not even kidding) to ask about our experience.  I get it, you're a new restaurant.  It's a huge space and you need bodies in the door.  But hovering over your diners is NOT the way to make that happen.  You have a gorgeous space (albeit a complete DOSA rip-off) and are serving scrumptious food.  Chill out on the in-your-face "hospitality".

Ok, that's it for now.  A place in my 'hood got a makeover recently, so stay tuned for my review next week.  Meanwhile, have a great weekend everyone!

Monday, February 25, 2013

St. Helena's Finest

The food and wine culture is one of decadence and indulgence and, for whatever stupid reasons, that often means a whole lotta meat and cheese.  Therefore, it can be a bit of a challenge to find good vegan food in wine country.  Having spent more than my fair share of time in the Napa and Sonoma valleys, I know all the best spots... or so I thought.  Last weekend we stayed exclusively in St. Helena and I tried two new-to-me places with vegan offerings to beat the band - like these tacos!

At La Condessa, these "acelgas" tacos come packed with greens and bursting with flavor.   They are inherently vegan (no queso here) for easy ordering and go great with the house guacamole and salsas.  But wait, there's more:

This "mixta" salad was my favorite order of the weekend.  Topping a base of arugula and cabbage are green beans, jicama, avocado, corn, and much more.  It all gets dressed in a scrumptious mustard vinaigrette and gets in your mouth like whoa.  So tasty!  The perfect side?  Fried plantains with salsa verde.  Sweet and savory and great for soaking up some wine.  :)

This heirloom beet salad is not exactly what you might expect to find at a Himalayan restaurant, but this starter is just one of the delicious vegan offerings at Himalayan Sherpa Kitchen.  Beautiful beets, organic greens, baby carrots... what more could you ask for?  And the best part is that you can follow it with any number of traditional offerings, like this Alu Cauli Kerau.  It's the best of Californian and Nepalese cuisine in one place:

Much like an Indian Aloo Gobi, this mouthwatering dish of potatoes, cauliflower, and green peas comes smothered in a savory tomato sauce and served with your choice of rice (I went with the steamed brown variety) or roti.  It is soul warming on a cold day and quite a nice partner to a crisp white wine, I might add.

I hope to continue finding new vegan-friendly places in wine country since, lord knows, I love visiting up there, but I already know that future visits will include trips to these two winners.  Enjoy your week, everyone, and stay tuned for a new SF restaurant visit!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Z Cafe and Bar, Oakland

I mentor youth here in SF, and one of the girls I work with is a very picky eater.  We're working on it, slowly, and I know enough about the restaurants in the city to have a long list of places we can dine happily together.  However, for our outing to the Warriors game in Oakland last night, I had to do some research.  I knew I wanted someplace that had at least one vegan option and was near enough to the arena so we wouldn't be rushed.  After some online scouting and an email or two, we ended up going to, and loving Z Cafe and Bar.

That right there is their "Vegetarian Burger" which I confirmed was vegan (even with the bun!) via their Facebook page.  Gotta love places that use social media effectively.  Made of black beans, chickpeas, veggies, oats, and spices,  it is hearty and flavorful, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Not only that, but the waitstaff is friendly and on top of things, and it only took us 10 minutes to get to the game afterward, making us the real winners.

The Z Salad (hold the cheese) and the Blackberry Cabernet sorbet were also delicious, and they have other veganizable items on the menu as well.  I wasn't drinking (not kosher while mentoring, duh) but they have a huge bar and it looked like they were putting out a ton of tasty cocktails.  Should I ever find myself in that neck of the woods again, I wouldn't hesitate to dine there and bring friends.  Thanks Z Cafe!

Next up, some Napa Valley eats..... meanwhile, have a great weekend, everyone!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Valentine's Love at Millennium

By now you've probably figured out that there is one place we REALLY like to spend all special occasions (assuming we're here in SF) and that place is, of course, Millennium.  Valentine's Day was no exception, and I think it was one of their finest menus yet (yes, I always think that).  In case you couldn't be there yourself, and to encourage you to go to Millennium for any occasion - special or otherwise - in the future, here's what we had:

Our amuse was a beet tartar with macadamia nut cheese, an orange mustardo and endive spears for scooping.  I will be trying to recreate this at home, and probably not doing it justice at all.  For what appears to be a simple dish is actually so infused with nuanced flavors that it kind of blows my mind.

Next up was this soul-warming cauliflower soup.  The chili oil drizzled on top had a hint of cardamom and the fried shiso leaf added a nice textural dissonance.  Beautiful stuff.

I love me a good salad, and this one was one of the best I've had.  Mizuna greens and toasted edamame mixed perfectly with the slightly spicy dressing. Not to mention it was toped with fried shallots (read: fancy funions!).  I would have been happy to eat another bowl or two of this one.  Luckily, the main course was even better...

I am a sucker for anything in phyllo dough, and this brik pastry full of squash and greens and other incredible magic was simply divine.  Refined, yet homey, I really felt the love in this dish... and that is, after all, the point on Valentine's Day, right?  Well, that and CHOCOLATE:

This dessert was cuh-razy good, y'all.  Salted chocolate layer cake = amazing enough, but with chocolate chipotle ice cream?   I was in heaven.  It was the best way to end our romantic meal, and I'm already looking forward to our next occasion for dining at Millennium.

Have a great post-valentine's weekend, everyone, and stay tuned for more Bay Area eats soon!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Maui Marvels!

This last week, the husband and I stole away to Maui for some much needed us time. The sun and sand of Wailea were just what the doctor ordered, but the food was what took us by surprise. The last time we were in Maui was ten years ago and I'm happy to report that the vegan offerings are more plentiful and more delicious than ever before. Even the high end resorts are getting onboard:

That's the menu at The Fairmont's KO Restaurant, and their offerings were so off the charts that we ate there twice during our stay. The watercress salad was a highlight:

Filled with local greens and roasted pears, it was the vanilla vinaigrette that really wowed me. And check out this huge grilled veggie platter:

Edamame hummus was the star here but the veggies were  fresh and local and prepared well. Other dishes we loved here were veggie fried rice with tempeh and an amazing vegetable coconut curry. I didn't grab shots of either of those, but I did capture Ko's vegan chocolate cake:

My hubby has no sweet tooth whatsoever, but he devoured this cake and went on and on about it all night. I have to admit that I'm not a cake lover and I, too, loved every moist morsel of this one. Ko also has low sugar, macrobiotic, and raw menus. Fantastic stuff for an omni restaurant, for sure. But wait, there's more!

You may know Tommy Bahama for their casual wear and fragrance line, but in Wailea they also have a restaurant  with tasty vegan offerings like this roasted vegetable plate. I enjoyed the variety (quinoa!) on my plate while my love inhaled his pasta with tomatoes and capers and other goodies. Not bad for a eatery within (ok, next door to) a clothing store.

Just down the road from our hotel was the eclectic Monkeypod Kitchen, and their extremely tasty  salads and this Vegan Portuguese Soup. Full of the goodness of beans and veggies and a mouth-watering blend of spices, it was one of my favorite lunches on the island.

Across the street from Monkeypod is Manoli's Pizza Company, creators of those cheese-free beauties you see above. Yes, that top one is kale. Kale, on pizza. And the gods (ok, just me?) rejoiced! The bottom is their Mediterranean pie, which is basically a Greek salad on pizza. The drizzle of balsamic really makes this one a winner.

In Kihei, you will find Joy's Place, which has quite a few vegan options. My favorite was the Indocrunch Wrap, which is full of peanut-sauced tempeh and veggies and wrapped in lettuce and rice paper. Joy's also has  a case if raw offerings like chocolate truffles and nut burgers. Plus all the folks who work there are super friendly. Always a plus. While we're out of Wailea a bit, let's check some offerings in other parts of the island, shall we?

In Paia, we loved Moana Cafe and Bakery. Their salads are filling and full of so much local and organic produce it's pretty incredible. I mean, it was all just so pretty, and you do eat with your eyes first, right? Luckily your eyes and stomach will agree: YUM!

We had our favorite meal of the trip in Lahaina. Off the main drag, Mala Ocean Tavern (left in the panorama) is a place full of the Aloha spirit.  Right on the water and perfect for sunset dining, the atmosphere is uber relaxed but the service is attentive as all get out. Before your butts hit the seat, menus and chips with salsa and edamame hummus will be on your table. When you're ravenous from jumping waves, this is much appreciated. But then the real deal arrives and things just get better:

That's Mala's quartet, only it was a trio for the vegans as our double baba gannoush is normally raita. No complaints here though as this was some flavorful stuff! Still, nothing beats the GadoGado salad I had:

Ain't  she a beaut? I love a salad of mixed temperatures, and the crisp cool greens with the warm red rice (on the bottom) and sesame tofu was the perfect combination. The sesame ginger dressing brought the whole thing together and left me in food bliss. The husband really loved his Balinese tofu stir fry too. If our hotel had been closer we would have been to Mala multiple times for sure. I already look forward to a sunset there sometime in the future. It is a uniquely wonderful spot. Speaking of unique:

Back in Wailea is Kai Waliea. I can't recommend this overpriced and underwhelming restaurant but we did have this very interesting veggie roll with strawberries. I'm still not sure how I feel about it honestly. More palate-confusing than pleasing, I'm glad I tried it, but still. With so many veg options in the vicinity, no need to head to Kai yourself  to try this. Just put some berries on store bought sushi and you get the idea.

Lastly, the place to go on your way in or out of town is definitely Down to Earth near the airport. This all vegetarian health food store is brimming with vegan options - from a well-stocked salad bar to soups and cooked entrees.  The deli is even ready to make you vegan meat sandwiches with sides of numerous pre-made kale or potato or pasta salads. We stopped on the way home to grab some food for the plane and were definitely getting jealous stares from other passengers.

It was a lovely and scrumptious trip but I'm always happy to come home to SF. Stay tuned for vegan eats by the bay soon!

Friday, February 1, 2013

SF Vegan Bakesale: Valentine's Edition

It's happening again you guys!  The most sweetest, wonderful time of year is upon us... and I don't mean Valentine's Day.  I'm talking about the Valentine's installment of the SF Vegan Bakesale!

Taking place at Herbivore on Valencia Street on Sunday the 10th, this epic event promises to do everything in its power to sate your sweet tooth.  Offering vegan treats from all the best bakers, there's sure to be something for everyone.  Plus, all the proceeds go to Animal Place.  So yeah, it's basically the best thing ever and you'd be a fool not to go.  Do it, and show some love!