Situated right in the heart of downtown on Market Street, you’d think Kombu would have snagged a prime location, and for all intents and purposes it couldn’t be in a better place. Stumbling distance from both the Powell and Montgomery BART stations, you’d be crazy to walk by without grabbing a seat… Except that if you’ve been in downtown San Francisco recently, there’s a strong chance that you already have, and multiple times at that, because it’s nearly impossible to find. There might be a menu stand out front if you’re lucky, but there’s no sign on the street, and the address is better known for housing an outpost of Equinox Gym. Even after making it up to the fourth floor, you must still suspend disbelief and walk past the casual takeout counter, because what you’re really looking for is just around the corner.
Each item on the menu is clearly composed with intention and care. Numerous vegan options appear in each section, handily labeled, making it easy to dine out with eaters of all stripes here. The views are stunning, especially midday when light streams in through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Quiet, aside from the incongruous mix of 80’s and 90’s pop music, Kombu is like an oasis high above the traffic below.
Falling firmly into the New American category, the menu features locally grown and organic foods in what could best be described as unfussy, elevated comforting cuisine. Each dish is clearly composed with care, from conception to cooking, and I can confidently say that after tasting almost the entire vegan menu, there isn’t one lackluster selection amongst the ever-changing seasonal options.
Appetizers kick off any meal in style, but these introductory gems are tempting enough to draw one in off the street for a quick snack in their own rights. When it comes to the Carrot and Beet Hummus, no beans need apply, because these are actually vegetable-based purees, much lighter and more refreshing than the traditional dip. They’re brilliant alone and even more fabulous mixed together, swirling into a an edible watercolor painting on the plate. Each has a unique earthy sweetness, nicely complimented by the buttery points of toast provided on the side. Truth be told though, all I need is a spoon, since I’d like to order these up by the bowlful.
Providing a bloodless answer to the classic steakhouse starter of steak tartare, Kristin’s playful interpretation of Beet Tartare is much more than your average beet salad. A duet of citrus in the form of orange and grapefruit creates unique nuances in each bite, some more tart or tangy than others, anchored by the tender cubes of red beets. Both earthy and bright, sweet and sour, it’s a bold study in contrasts that ultimately comes together to create an implausible harmony on the tongue.
Moving on to the main event, the Seared Tofu might not sound like much by name alone, but this is not your run-of-the-mill tofu stir fry. Seasoned with finesse, you can really taste the tofu without feeling overwhelmed by the earthy, beany aspect of it. Accompanying vegetables remain crisp and vibrant, featuring a rare example of sautéed kale that hasn’t had the life cooked out of it. The tomato jam-infused rice hidden underneath posseses a firm bite, and the silky miso sauce adds just the right touch of richness and saltiness, like a refined version of dengaku.
What constitutes the ideal veggie burger is a point of contention amongst herbivores and omnivores alike, but I’m happy to report that the Kombu Burger (slider sized as seen above) would definitely pass muster with even the most discerning of eaters. A dense, buttery, brioche-style bun caps off a savory, satisfying patty, seated atop creamy cabbage slaw. It’s very rich all told, but guarantees that those who partake have no chance of walking away hungry. The firm burger holds itself together remarkably well, refusing to crumble under pressure, which is the downfall of all too many lesser vegetable patties.
Tempting fate and testing my eggplant intolerance, the rich eggplant caponata crowning the velvety Polenta was flavorful enough to be worth any amount of pain. Delightfully salty thanks to briny little capers hidden throughout, the dish wouldn’t be the same without them, as they brought out just the right meaty, savory notes to make it feel like a complete meal. Incredibly soothing, easy to eat, but never coming close to approximating a bowlful of gruel, you can truly taste the corn of the polenta base, accentuated by rich vegetable broth undertones. Shatteringly crisp squash blossoms are real gems here, worth of a menu slot all their own. I would gladly order them up by the plateful and munch through them with a drink at the bar.
A glowing, golden mountain of creamy rice, the Saffron Risotto readily flaunts its riches, showing off a treasure trove of spring delicacies at the summit. Morels, maitake, wild asparagus, and impeccably seared fiddlehead ferns all sparkle with a subtle hint of charred flavor. Thick enough to easily eat with a fork, the risotto itself boasts ideally al dente grains thoroughly infused with saffron and cooked to a comfortingly sticky consistency. I only wish there were more of those glorious vegetables found throughout the towering mound and not just on the peak, as it’s a whole lot of rice once the garnishes have been devoured.
Dairy-free dessert choices are a bit limited, but one would never feel restricted once a perfectly chilled glass of either Mango or Mocha Chia Pudding arrives at the table. Rather than approximating tapioca with soaked, whole seeds, this interpretation finds them roughly ground, creating a smooth custard that still boasts a bit of texture. The bright mango flavor is every bit as juicy and sweet as the whole fruit, making it a perfectly refreshing, light finish to any meal. However, chocolate-lovers would be foolish to pass on the mocha version, no matter how filling the preceding meal. Full-bodied 90% chocolate, deep, dark, and intense, shares the spotlight with the bold espresso flavor woven inextricably throughout the creamy melange, managing to compliment one another and not compete.
The true sign of a chef’s skill is their treatment of vegetables, from the most humble to rarefied. Few examples of more perfectly cooked greens, roots, and legumes alike can be found in all of the city, and even fewer opportunities for vegans to partake in those culinary exploits. Don’t be afraid to ask about vegan options should you stop in for yourself; beyond the numerous options that are clearly labeled for every meal of the day, many of the other dishes can be easily converted as well.
Chef Kristen was kind enough not only to share these incredible dining experiences with me apropos of nothing, but offered to extend that generosity even further by giving her recipe for that luscious polenta, in case readers far from San Francisco wanted a taste of their own. Though nothing could compare to the flavors wrought forth by the skilled kitchen staff at Kombu, I’m delighted to have this summery main dish on file to soothe any inconsolable cravings that may strike. It’s worth whipping up in your own kitchen, and ideal for featuring the freshest produce of the season.
Creamy Chive Polenta with Eggplant Caponata and Roasted Tomatoes
By Chef Kristen Thibeault of Kombu
6 Tablespoons Olive Oil, Divided
4 Roma Tomatoes, Halved
1 Teaspoon Herbs de Provence
1 Shallot, Finely Minced
1 Tablespoons Tomato Paste
1/2 Cup White Wine
2 Cups Rough Chopped Japanese Eggplant
1 Tablespoon Capers
1 Clove Garlic, Crushed
2 Cups Vegetable Stock
1 Cup Dry (Uncooked) Polenta
1 Cup Unsweetened Coconut Milk Beverage
Crushed Red Pepper Flakes (Optional)
1. Roasted Tomatoes
Place halved tomatoes on baking sheet with silpat or parchment paper. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil. sprinkle with herbs de provence and salt and pepper. Roast at 350 until golden brown and caramelized. Set aside.
2. Eggplant Caponata
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in medium saute pan. Add shallots. Saute until translucent. Add tomato paste and saute until browned. Add chopped eggplant and saute until soft. Add 1 clove minced garlic and saute briefly until just translucent. Deglaze pan with white wine and scrape browned tomato paste from pan to enhance flavor. Reduce by 1/2. Remove from heat and add capers, red pepper flakes (optional) and black pepper to taste. Set aside.
3. Creamy Polenta
In medium sauce pan bring 2 cup vegetable stock, 1 cup drinkable unsweetened coconut milk, 2 tablespoons olive oil and a pinch of salt to a boil. Slowly whisk in 1 cup polenta. Continue stirring until starts to thicken and bubble. Fold in chives. Season with salt to taste. If too thick stir in additional coconut milk to desired thickness. Serve immediately, dividing the polenta amongst four plates. Top with eggplant caponata and roasted tomatoes on side. Finish with drizzle of good quality olive oil.
Makes 4 Servings
Standing tall and pert in rows a dozen deep, forests of asparagus cover the tables at farmers markets as far as the eye can see. Classic harbingers of spring, their appearance signals a definitive end to winter, as though the slender green stalks had slain the seasonal demon themselves. Deep green, royal purple, ghostly white; all colors were represented on this early April day, each bundling growing more enticing, glowing more vibrantly in the rising morning sun than the last. With a heavy bag straining under the weight of this spring plunder, it would be easy to call it a day, feeling quite content with a delicious, albeit rather predictable haul. Don’t make that mistake. Delve further into the booths, interrogate the farmers if you need to, and seek out rarer treasures. For a window of about three to four weeks, green almonds may be hiding in plain sight at your local markets, amassed in humble little piles or collected in small baskets, just behind the more popular fare. Off-putting fuzzy exteriors belie a firm, crunchy texture, wholly edible and entirely delicious from the outside shell to kernel. Their short window of availability is dictated by the maturation of the almond, transforming the fresh fruit into the crunchy nut we all know and love. Leading with a pleasantly bitter taste, the overriding flavor is that of lemons and cucumbers, sometimes with a hint of tart grape in the background. Juicy yet crisp, they’re impossibly addictive when eaten with just a light pinch of salt. Sure, you could chop them up and add them to salads, use them for garnishes on chilled soups, or otherwise toss them into any raw or cooked preparation you see fit, but they’re best when allowed to shine solo. At most, go ahead and cure them in a lightly sweet and sour brine, and you’ll have the stuff of pickle plate dreams. One would never mistake them for the roasted almonds they may one day become, which is part of the appeal. You may think you know the common nuts, but catch them on the unripe side and you’ll have a whole new snacking sensation in store.
While tech geniuses and high-powered CEOs across the city shell out $9.99 per pound for limp romaine and iceberg, a veritable open bar of salad greens sits mere blocks away, completely free for the taking. I’m talking about the wild foods growing in just about every corner of San Francisco, although most people would regard them as merely weeds or even invasive pests. Foraging may sound like an implausible venture in the middle of San Francisco, and yet right there on just the outskirts of Golden Gate Park, scores of not only edible but wholly delicious plants are thriving, hidden in plain sight. Furthermore, these greens are packed with more nutrition than their pale, cultivated brethren could dream of.
I’m far from an expert and was grateful for a bit of guidance myself, so if you’re new to the concept, definitely enlist an a more seasoned forager to help identify your discoveries. It needs to be said that foraging for wild foods is not without its pitfalls, of course. Before diving deep into the urban wilds, bear in mind:
1. It’s illegal, at least in California and most parts of the US, to take anything from public property. Whether or not this is enforced is an entirely different matter, and your mileage may vary.
2. It’s poisonous, at least in some cases, due to polluted soil. The best places to find wild edibles are typically in disturbed patches of earth, which often means near highways or construction sites, which can mean that there are some unsavory things being absorbed by the plants. In parks, they may be sprayed with herbicides, so be very aware of how the areas that you forage are maintained.
3. It’s poisonous– Really. There are some cruel look-like weeds that may seem benign and taste quite delicious, but are genuinely harmful or even deadly. Know what you’re picking up before you think about touching it.
Now, don’t you all want to run out there and go foraging with me? In case I haven’t scared everyone off, just take a gander at the plunder one can take away from a mere 100-yard stroll through the outskirts of grand Golden Gate Park.
Common mallow, one of the most abundant edible weeds where I began my search and a favorite new discovery of the day, they possess thickening powers similar to okra when cooked but are incredibly delicious eaten raw as well. The immature seed pods, also known as “green cheese wheels,” are the best parts. Crunchy and refreshing, just pluck them off the stem and enjoy. The whole plant, from stem to leaf, is edible and delicious.
Cleavers have Velcro-like hairs lining their leaves which gives them a slightly prickly texture, but that is minimized when crushed, chopped, or blended. Also quite tasty both raw and cooked it’s an especially good addition in green smoothies. They’re also fun to throw at your friends because they’ll stick to your clothing.
Black nightshade sounds like something you should avoid at all costs, but is actually related to the potato. In this case, the ripe fruit is the only part that should be eaten. The leaves contain solanine, a toxin that, in great enough quantity, can cause some serious gastrointestinal distress.
Oxalis has a sour, tart flavor, which has given it the nickname of “sourgrass.” Both the flowers and leaves are edible and highly nutritious. It contains an impressive amount of vitamin c, but should be used in small amounts due to its strong taste.
Miner’s lettuce is a prime salad green, juicy and with a flavor incredibly similar to good old spinach. To preserve the patch and allow it to grow back, be careful to simply pinch or snip off the leaves, rather than pulling out the roots. For anyone new to foraging, I would highly recommend you sample these leafy greens first, as the flavor is one of the most universally agreeable of all the common edible weeds.
Chickweed is another one that you’ve likely already heard about, since the leaves are very good raw in salads and are often paired with miner’s lettuce for variety. The stalk is stringy though so it’s best saved for cooking.
Wild radishes are quite different from cultivated radishes, as the root is tough and stringy. It’s the buds and flowers that you want in this case, which contain a pungent mustard flavor. The flowers come in all colors of the rainbow, and you’ll often find many different colors altogether in the same patch.
Yarrow is more of a medicinal herb rather than a purely edible one, as it’s incredibly bitter when eaten straight. I do not recommend this at all! The flowers are more potent than the leaves but all parts can be used to brew a calming, mildly sedative tincture. It also reacts strongly with yeast and can help bread rise if you’re an avid baker. Only a little bit is needed to make a big impact.
Wild plums are likely the most abundant wild fruit growing in the bay area. These pictured above are still unripe, as they’ll be in season come mid- to late-June.
Trust me, this is just the beginning of a wild food odyssey, and absolutely anyone could harvest exactly the same haul for themselves with very little effort. I didn’t spend more than hour looking or walk beyond the well-trod trail to find all of these goodies. It pays to do your research and pick very carefully, because the culinary reward is priceless.
Falafel Pocket Sandwich and Banana Milkshake from The Flying Falafel
Tempeh Buffalo Wingz from Rhizocali Tempeh
Beer and “Cheese” Potato Skins from S&M Vegan
Veggie Sushi Burrito from Sushi Taka
Snap Pea Fries from Dusty Buns
Farmers Market Salad from Hella Vegan
“Chicken” and Waffles from Hella Vegan
Vegetable Lumpia from No Worries
Eggplant and Soy Chicken Adobo from No Worries
Before embarking on a cheese-tasting journey, one must will themselves to forget everything previously assumed about the essential experience of vegan cheese. Erase those early memories of eating yellow-colored wax back in the early 90’s, concocting funky wallpaper paste in home kitchens during fits of DIY determination, and even the reasonably melted shreds smothering dairy-free pizzas today. Even as a cheese-lover in a previous life, the flavors contained in these small, simple packages are a step up from anything I had enjoyed as a child. With or without that frame of reference, I’ll spoil the suspense right here; anyone with taste buds would be impressed by these offerings.
As mentioned briefly in part one, the whole line of Miyoko’s Kitchen cheeses are cashew-based, seasoned, inoculated, and aged in different ways to create a whole rainbow of flavors. Most wheels are firm, sliceable numbers ideal for fancy cheese platters (or midnight snacking, if your late night cravings are so decadent,) while a solid handful of spreadable options round out the savory portfolio.
Kicking this cheese party off right, I went straight for the High Aged English Sharp Farmhouse first. Posed as Miyoko’s take on the ubiquitous cheddar cheese, this is a lightly tanned, dense, and firm round of cashew goodness. Although there are certain bites that are reminiscent of nutritional yeast, the overall impact is distinctly cheddar-like, landing very close to the promised target. Pleasantly sharp indeed, a subtle vinegary, acidic aftertaste follows each taste, rounding out this nutty study in umami.
The High Sierra Rustic Alpine proved to be a more mild cheese, leading with the salty twang of white miso. Very agreeable and easily paired with just about anything, its neutral base makes it particularly nice with sweeter, fruity accompaniments. If there was ever a “dessert cheese,” this attractive option would fit the bill perfectly. When all was said and done, I came back to this flavor to find that it was the simple, basic, and straight-forward option of the full lineup.
Thoroughly encrusted in herbs, not a spare millimeter of naked rind can be seen peering out from the Country Style Herbes De Provence. Redolent of rosemary and thyme and rounded out with notes of sage, oregano, and lavender, this is one heady bouquet of earthy flavors. Every bite is slightly different thanks to the random distribution of seasonings, but each one guarantees an incredibly well-balanced blend of herbaceous, subtly floral tastes. A very sophisticated offering that speaks for itself, it may very well be best paired with nothing more than a glass of dry red wine.
One of my personal top picks and something of a sleeper hit, Fresh Loire Valley in a Fig Leaf certainly made for a stunning presentation. Wrapped in a tender fresh fig leaf, it’s sure to steal the spotlight at any party. Featuring a very fruity, floral aroma, the complex interplay between the savory, creamy cheese and fresh fig leaf is amazing, elevating vegan cheese to a whole new level. If you could only pick one option to show off to all your friends, this is the wheel that I’d pull out to impress eaters of all stripes, omnivorous or not.
Aged English Smoked Farmhouse is described as a substitute for smoked cheddar, but to my palate, it was a dead ringer for smoked Gouda, a beloved cheesy snack from my childhood. The rich, smoked aroma is the real deal; nothing like the shallow flavor of liquid smoke, the pungent savory perfume is seriously strong without being overpowering. Salty, punchy, and bold, I found it impossible to resist as simple, unadorned slices. Shamefully, I must admit that I horded this delicious umami bomb all to myself, unwilling to share even a sliver.
The Mt. Vesuvius Black Ash is a truly unique, innovative wheel that has no equal. A distinctive inky black rind, dark as night, gives way to a creamy beige interior. The taste of ash is surprisingly subtle, considering its striking appearance, lending a faintly bitter and smoky edge to this miso-flavored cheese. Definitely a conversation starter and impressive centerpiece, it’s also one of the harder slicing options to add some textural variety to a well-rounded cheese board.
Turning my attention temporarily to the softer, spreadable options, the pale reddish-orange color gives away the flavor concealed within the Double Cream Sundried Tomato Garlic at first glance. Smoky tomato flavor leaps forth immediately; assertive, with a bold acidic piquancy and subtle peppery notes, even though no pepper is listed in the ingredients. Strong enough to hold its own as a solo topping or sauce, Miyoko’s suggestion of tossing it with pasta is right on point. It needs only a vehicle for enjoyment, nothing else.
Double Cream Chive boasts a strong onion flavor, sharp and assertive, that will play second fiddle to no one. Slather a wedge onto anything, be it a cracker or a rubber tire, and it will dominate the palate. Its flavors blossom on your tongue, becoming more pungent as it warms and melts, revealing buttery, grassy notes almost as an afterthought. A soft, rich wheel with real character, it’s best paired with simple crackers to allow those distinctive flavors to to shine without competition.
Faced with such an embarrassment of riches, the only reasonable thing I could think to do with my treasure was to take it into the kitchen, creating a seriously indulgent and perfectly cheesy dish for the holidays. Brussels sprouts, already enjoying a renaissance in the food world, are made even more irresistible with the addition of Miyoko’s dangerously delicious French Style Winter Truffle Cheese. Very soft, super funky, earthy, and slightly grassy, the buttery notes make it ideal for recipe enhancement. Almost too rich to eat by itself, the truffle essence still shines after light cooking, adding that addictively savory taste to everything it touches.
Shatteringly crisp fried leeks, peppery almonds, and the sweet and sour syrup of balsamic glaze truly gild the lily here, each one used sparingly to allow the creamy gratins to shine. A dish designed for special occasions, the essence of black truffle truly takes it over the top. That said, the basic preparation is so simple that it could easily be paired down as an everyday side. I can imagine that your garden-variety vegan cream cheese could suffice in a pinch… But don’t expect the same deeply satisfying, almost overwhelmingly umami impact as the original.
SPECIAL OFFER! For a limited time, Miyoko is offering BitterSweet readers a rare discount on her unique, cheesy wares. Enter the code “Hannah2015” at checkout for $5 off your order, only until April 1st. Trust me, this deal is no joke, and you’d be crazy not to take advantage of it.
Truffled Brussels Sprouts Gratins
1/2 Cup (4 Ounces) Plain Mashed Potatoes
2 Ounces (About 1/3 of a Wheel) Miyoko’s Kitchen French Style Winter Truffle Cheese
3/4 Pound Brussels Sprouts, Blanched and Halved
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
2 Scallions, Thinly Sliced
1 – 2 Tablespoons Fresh Parsley, Roughly Chopped
1 Tablespoon White Miso Paste
1 Tablespoon Arrowroot Powder
1 Cup Unsweetened Non-Dairy Milk
1/4 Teaspoon Freshly Ground Grains of Paradise or Black Pepper
Toppings, To Serve (Optional):
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease 6 small ramekins; set aside.
While still warm, mash the potatoes with the truffle cheese, mixing well so that the cheese melts in smoothly, but not so well that you create wallpaper paste (it will become progressively stickier as you stir, so take it easy!) Fold in the blanched brussels sprouts, followed by the oil, scallions, parsley, miso, and arrowroot, making sure that all of the ingredients are thoroughly incorporated. Slowly pour in the non-dairy milk while continuing to stir, and finally season to taste with grains of paradise or black pepper.
Equally distribute the mixture between your prepared ramekins and bake for 35 – 45 minutes, until lightly browned on top. They should still jiggle slightly when tapped, much like a cheesecake, as they will continue to set as they cool. Let rest for at least 15 minutes before topping with leeks, almonds, and balsamic glaze as desired and serving hot. The gratins can be made ahead of time and will keep nicely in the fridge, tightly covered and unadorned, for up to 4 days.
Makes 6 Servings
Never underestimate the power of one industrious nut… And all of the cashews that she employs, too! All jokes aside, vegan author, entrepreneur, and luminary Miyoko Schinner has a genuinely tenacious work ethic, working tirelessly to bring her creative visions to life. There are plenty of dreamers with bold ideas that never see the light of day, but Ms. Schinner wouldn’t back down in the face of impossible odds, launching the only cheese factory of its kind in the San Francisco bay area. Nut cheeses of all colors and stripes are now emerging on the market, but I can’t find a single competitor that painstakingly ages their offerings for weeks, or even months, after inoculating them with genuine cheese-making strains of bacteria. One could no doubt take this opportunity to tout the nutritional benefits sure to come from those healthy microorganisms, but for the connoisseur, these ingredients are simply the key to authentic funky flavors that are found nowhere else.
Luck (and Miyoko’s unending good graces and generosity) were on my side one cool fall afternoon, when I happened to find myself in town for a flash-in-the-pan photo shoot. With only a day’s notice, I found myself with the rare chance to peek behind the curtain in Miyoko’s Kitchen to see the cashews in action.
If you’ve ever made nut cheese at home, you already know how much raw material it takes to churn out one creamy wheel; multiply that by about 10,000, and you might have some idea of the scale of this operation. Huge, 25-pound bags of cashews are soaked and chewed up every day of production. To put it in perspective these things are the size and weight of a typical adult Beagle, requiring nearly as much love and attention, to boot. Unlike the options in her ground-breaking cookbook, these young rounds are not set with agar to expedite the process. After churning through an industrial-sized turbine of a blender and cooling down, the average cheese is aged for four weeks, tucked away on cozy refrigerated trays until the batch is fully ripened.
Initially struggling to keep up with demand, each prized wheel was as rare and rigorously guarded as solid bricks of gold. Spreading the wealth near and far, Miyoko’s cheeses are now readily available in most bay area Whole Foods and specialty markets, expanding outward across the country at a rapid pace. Roughly 5,000 pounds of glorious cashew cheese leave those factory doors every month, so it shouldn’t be long before they hit store shelves near you. In the meantime, you can order directly from the source, and yes, Miyoko can ship these creamy beauties all the way to Australia, too! For orders abroad, I would suggest you contact the cheese maven herself to secure personalized shipping info.
To be continued in Part Two. Next up is the good stuff, what you’ve no doubt been waiting for… The tasting notes, plus a perfectly cheesy recipe. Stay tuned!