Herbivore's Dilemma 

Can a vegan restaurant survive by glorifying vegetables alone?

You could say I was a Monday night vegan, drowning my ambivalence in molasses-y pints of McEwan's. Still, during my year at a university in Scotland, I willingly scoured my colon with the grim rations of the weekly vegan "feast." Once a week in the campus pub, a ruddy corps of the bearded and the babushka'd served up a meal of browns and grays: broad-bean "moussaka," Brussels sprouts devastated in the steam kettle, and brown rice boiled into some turgid, rusky porridge.

Spurning the mystery-meat mince of the dining hall felt like the only sane option, even for those of us who sort of liked mince. It was a rejection of the collective slop in favor of a slop whose clumsiness was its mark of purity. Vegans, carnivores — we were all eating crap. But on hippie moussaka night, we virtuous few could congratulate ourselves on choosing crap rooted in noble impulse. And if dinner was going to suck anyway, better a sack of legumes should have suffered than some soft-eyed ruminant. Right?

That's precisely the argument that makes me a reluctant sucker for Herbivore, the handsome new vegan diner in downtown Berkeley's neo-Deco Fine Arts building. It's a notable eastward expansion of a mini-chain launched a decade ago in the Mission in San Francisco, a formula that succeeded with a blend of high design and a foods-of-the-world approach to menu-making. You know — textured-soy-protein tacos jostling for attention with tofu-stuffed spring rolls, a familiar eclecticism done up in global shades of meatlessness. But can food that opts out of kicking ass on critters succeed through karma alone? Or do the dishes have to taste kickass, too? Call it the herbivore's dilemma.

This must be one of the grandest restaurants to open in Berkeley since Downtown. Owner Adham Nasser opted against stereotype, commissioning a sprawling space that aspires to Dwell magazine sleekness, all hard surfaces, aluminum windows, and a bar that flaunts its liquor bottles like glossy objets d'art. It's as if Nasser was determined to make his veggie palace look as little as possible like the fern-choked, redwood-burl cliché of the vegan eatery in a college town.

But dig into the restaurant's lentil loaf and you find yourself right back in the land of the cliché. Herbivore's signature entrée is a hefty softscape of cruelty-free heaps: mashed potatoes with a trickle of yellowish mushroom gravy, an almost fluffy mass of red chard, baguette toasts in long obliques, and the lentil loaf itself. The star protein was more a shaggy legume patty — crisped on the griddle — than anything resembling a stiff slice of mom's weeknight standby. You can slather its brown surface with tomato-sesame salsa or beet sauce.

The latter looked like evaporated borscht, a subtly magenta puree with natural-tasting sweetness and an unnatural shudder of cloves. Both flavors balanced the lentil patty's surprisingly tangy wallop, I suppose. It was a dish that might have seemed only mildly unsatisfying, if only the other heaps hadn't also seemed wrong. The sautéed chard might have been more than okay, but for a hefty dose of fresh ginger that managed to play up the leafy vegetable's tanned-leather fierceness.

In contrast, the mashed spuds were perfect. But their mushroom gravy was distractingly funky — the result, I reckon, of some cook's itchy finger on the nutritional yeast canister. Used with restraint, nutritional yeast is a seasoning that can make a dish taste like it contains chicken bouillon cubes. Used with abandon, it can make a dish taste like it contains a well-worn slipper.

You have to admire the kitchen's energy, the impulse to splash seasoning over every element on the plate. Maybe it's a vegan thing. I mean, carnivores have the advantage of all kinds of plush flavors, from smoky bacon to slabs of carnitas, meats whose ample fat has caramelized into a dense matrix of flavors. As a consumer of meats, I want the unslaughtered stuff on my plate to taste more or less innocent.

Which is why I love Herbivore's shish kebab. In a way, the dish is a granola cliché: hunks of skewered veggies plopped down on a mound of brown rice (or basmati, or quinoa), with a ramekin of dipping sauce (lemon-garlic or peanut-miso) for when it all gets too boring. It never did. Turns out it was the one dish at Herbivore that made me think I might just be in a restaurant that glorifies vegetables, rather than in a place committed to engineering mock-meat simulacra.

Slices of zucchini, yellow squash, and red onion picked up fierce, smoky hits of flavor on the gas grill, magnifying their latent sweetness. Best of all were wheels of corn, whose husky yellow kernels distilled sugar and fire like the whiff of the corn-roasting machine at some Midwest summer street fair. Even oversize tomato wedges, whose mushy texture seemed to intensify on the grill, were nevertheless lush and acidy-sweet. But sadly, the protein I'd chosen turned out to be as welcome as a garden invader. Although their texture was fine, the thin slices of marinated seitan (I could have gone for tofu or what the menu calls "soy 'chicken'") were far too salty.

An eggplant and ground-soy-protein moussaka was unyielding, thanks to ever-so-slightly-underdone sliced potato. Pad Thai was little more than a mass of peanut sauce drenching ever-so-slightly overcooked rice noodles. A pinkish, house-made veggie burger tasted vaguely like potpourri from some overelaborate herb blend.

These weren't terrible dishes, just unsatisfying ones. In a funny way, their frustrations didn't completely discredit them. For vegetarians and full-on vegans, the very fact of Herbivore's existence must be an unequivocal good. You can sense that in the mix of customers, which at times seems like some long-overdue Woodstock of multigenerational tempeh lovers.

For the rest of us, jonesing now and then for the sort of healthy food that a salad tossed with creamy hemp seems to promise, Herbivore is still a positive addition to the 'hood. And while the food can be clumsy, at least no animal was harmed in the making of it. For option-starved vegans, that may be just about good enough.

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