Fit for a King

The ancient Romans may have conquered the world over two thousand years ago, but Italians still reign supreme when it comes to culinary prowess. No cuisine is more ubiquitous nor beloved, influencing modern culture near and far to this day. That said, given the overwhelming abundance of options already out there, does the world really need yet another Italian restaurant?

The King’s Feet, brand new on the scene in downtown Berkeley, would like to think so. Despite the wealth of preexisting options, there are surprisingly few establishments offering high-end vegan Italian food at any price. The King’s Feet takes aim at a more savvy, well-traveled, and voracious demographic, unsatisfied by the average red sauce joint that only offers doughy pizza crusts and plain pasta. That’s why the menu is a refreshing change of pace, even if appears familiar at first glance.

They’re not noodling around with their gut-busting pasta dishes, stacking up lofty layers of roasted summer squash, marinara, and dairy-free ricotta in their lasagna. The cheese is really the best part, so soft and savory, impossibly creamy, which is why the spinach-stuffed manicotti really shine. Those tender pasta tubes, cooked to an ideal al dente consistency, could rival anything made by your Nonna.

That said, I do believe that their biggest claim to fame will be the pizza. Super chewy, lightly blistered crusts with a range of seasonal vegetables and homemade meatless proteins and cheeses combine in the perfect proportion, demonstrating attention to detail that most places lack. Quite frankly, if you don’t order the maitake “clam” pie, you’re doing it wrong. Intensely garlicky, richly oiled, absurdly umami, the overall experience is almost too much. Treading the fine line between decadent and greasy, well-seasoned and salty, it manages to land on the side of satisfaction that makes you eat yourself to ruin. Granted, the overall effect strikes me more as a white sauce mushroom pizza than anything with seafood, but that’s probably a positive thing for people less enthralled with eating sea critters.

Speaking of which, the “calamari” made of fried mushrooms is not to be missed. Crispy, juicy, more addictive than fried chicken, it comes with a spicy aioli that is equally good for dipping pizza crusts in at the end of the meal, as you mull over the empty boxes. Ask for an extra portion; you won’t be the first.

Brought to you by the same masterminds from The Butcher’s Son, it’s no surprised that the cooks at The King’s Feet throw down the same gut-busting, no-holds-barred approach to nostalgic comfort food, dietary restrictions be dammed.

*Reviewed while sheltering in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, thus all food was ordered to go.

Closing Time

In the final days of the year, it’s natural to look back, taking stock of the previous twelve months, preparing to move forward anew. Rather than unleashing another navel-gazing list of top ten greatest hits, I want to take a moment to remember the dearly departed. 2019 saw the untimely demise of hundreds of restaurants across the nation, fickle business that it is, but it feels particularly poignant when it hits so close to home. The bay area has lost some bright stars this round, which deserve to be properly honored and mourned.

Early in February, while we were still recovering from winter’s torrential rains, Hella Vegan Eats shocked the east bay with a controversial departure from Classic Cars West. After fighting tooth and nail to graduate from their colorful food truck to a static brick and mortar space, it was a huge blow. No more pot sticker burritos, no more mega babe burgers! The same style of ballsy, down home comfort food has resurfaced in the form of Gay4U, revived by partner Sofi Espice at Garden House in downtown Oakland as a regular pop up.

Meanwhile, chef Adina Butler took up the reins in the freshly vacated space left behind by the duo, slinging hearty sandwiches, burgers, and fried delights to compliment the casual outdoor space. Sadly, that too was not long for this world, folding seven months later under unknown circumstances. What remains is a very vegan-unfriendly menu, and many unanswered questions.

Perhaps most devastating to the dining scene at large was the closure of Sanctuary Bistro, one of the very few high-end eateries that offered an entirely plant-based experience, in addition to a completely gluten-free menu. Owners Barry and Jennifer Jones Horton promise that in time, the sanctuary will rise again in Charlotte, NC, to delight diners on the opposite coast anew. Birth announcements have yet to be released.

Longstanding greasy spoon Saturn Cafe seemed indestructible, weathering the ups and downs of Berkeley politics and pricing for over a decade, proving itself beyond the typical short lifespan of the average eatery. It, too, fell to economic pressures, serving up its last plate of scrambled tofu and pancakes in July. The original Santa Cruz location, established in 1979, still soldiers on, but NorCal denizens are left in the dark for their midnight milkshake cravings.

Eatsa launched in San Francisco back in 2015 as an innovative, tech-centric concept centered around one humble grain: quinoa. Served in cubbies reminiscent of the automat experience of yore, without any human interaction, it was slated to be the next big thing. At its height, the company had six locations across multiple states, but soon ran into difficulties. No amount of pricing incentives and recipe reconfiguration could save it. One by one, all outposts quietly turned out the lights, and didn’t return. Supposedly, in addition to the empty retail spaces, they left behind a reported $24,000 in unpaid rent.

In a world already lacking sweetness, the departure of D&H Vegan Ice Cream comes as a particularly devastating blow. Without warning or explanation, the scoop shop was suddenly wiped off the map overnight. The soy based scoops melted away faster than I had time to get in a single lick, sweetening the Lake Merrit area for just a hot minute.

The prize for shortest run goes to Collective Kitchen & Bar, however, surviving on shaky footing for only three months of operation. A spinoff from three members of Juice Bar Collective, the offerings largely reflected their fresh pressed heritage, squeezing out juices, salads, and rice bowls with apparent success. Landlords don’t care about social media reviews, though, and an irreconcilable dispute forced a premature end for the venture.

Not a restaurant per say, but the source of noodle enlightenment to many, Baia Pasta was renowned for its superlative noodles. Selling directly to consumers from its storefront in Jack London Square and restaurants for their comforting carb creations, the cost of doing business became too much for founder Renato Sardo to bear. Unwilling to sell the company at the cost of quality, the legacy of this peerless pasta ends here, while the master returns to Italy for a simpler life.

Finally, some good news to mix in and lighten all the bad; Pizza Moda, purveyors of fine pies with an eye towards seasonal ingredients and vegan alternatives, has turned off the pilot light on their pizza oven, but not for long. Celebrated brother and sister duo Peter Fikaris and Christina Stobing, responsible for The Butcher’s Son, have taken on the project, seeking to revive the fine Italian dining experience in a fully vegan format. With the promise of even greater eats on the horizon, there’s plenty to look forward to in 2020.

Which losses do you feel most acutely, at home or abroad? Restaurants come and go, but their memories (and Yelp pages) live on forever, if the community remains.

Kiku Sushi

Writing about hidden local gems presents an agonizing conflict of interests. On the one hand, such excellence should be recognized, properly praised and encouraged to persist. On the other, drawing attention to a restaurant no bigger than a tool shed that already garners intimidating lines, puts it in danger of becoming even more overcrowded than it already is. Kiku Sushi needs no press to bring business through the door; on a completely unassuming, undistinguished Tuesday, wait time can stretch well into the darkness of night, no matter when you arrive. Well known for their commitment to quality, what potential patrons may not realize is the utterly innovative vegan menu.

It never turns up on lists for the best plant-based dining options, and yet it’s far more deserving of the honor than many predictable staples. We’re talking about more than the usual suspects here, with cucumber maki giving way to sumptuous specialty rolls that are every bit as creative as their fishy brethren.

That said, there’s plenty to relish from this bill of fare, starting with a number of truly killer apps. Don’t pass up the opportunity to enjoy impossibly rich, savory spoonfuls of Mushroom Miso Soup, or meltingly tender Nasu Dengaku, without the fear of bonito lurking in the background.

Spicy Tuna takes shape from chopped tomatoes, of all things, generously seasoned with fiery shichimi togarashi. A hint of cumin-scented shiso leaf and the crisp bite of crunchy cucumbers creates a well-balanced, fresh composition that’s distinctly different from the typically mayo-laden approach, and dare I say, far better.

Made of mushrooms instead of mollusks, the Baked Scallop Roll is an umami explosion in a rice-wrapped package. Creamy avocado adds richness without smothering the nuanced, shockingly authentic oceanic flavor. Though your eyes and mouth may try to tell you differently, that’s not tobiko on top, but finely grated carrot that somehow becomes an unbelievably convincing imposter.

If neither seafood nor any vegetable-based facsimiles ever did appeal, then the Kiku Roll was made for you. Take futo maki to the next level, and one step beyond, and you’ll have some idea of the behemoth about to descend on your table. Fully deep-fried in a light tempura batter and drizzled generously with sweet soy and ginger sauce, one order alone could become a wholly satisfying meal.

In a similar vein, the Spicy Crunchy Roll should have wide appeal across all dietary preferences and tastes. Toothsome marinaded kampyo meets yuba and decadent piles of tempura flakes, impossibly grease-less and, as promised, resoundingly crunchy. The spice level is gentle yet bright, clear, and distinct, perfectly cutting through the indulgent topping.

Kiku Sushi clearly isn’t hurting for business, and while I fear jeopardizing my own chances at getting in the door, such edible artistry needs to be celebrated. For a restaurant that never sought vegan accolades, they certainly do treat their plant-based diners to a royal sushi experience.

Kiku Sushi
1316 Gilman St
Berkeley, CA 94706

A Fresh Approach to Fast Casual

Chain restaurants have come to represent the slow erosion of all that is held dear by discerning diners the world over. Homogenized, mass-produced, oversimplified menus designed for consistency and volume proliferate, muting bold flavors in favor of simplicity. Quality isn’t the first, nor second or third, consideration, with more focus placed on cost than true value. Small businesses are edged out, putting the endangered mom and pop shop around the corner at even greater risk than ever.

Surely you’ve heard this tale of woe before. It’s not a new story, and no happy ending seems to lie ahead in the yet unwritten pages. However, it’s not all doom and gloom. “Franchise” doesn’t have to be a dirty word when it represents the spread of better corporate values. Veggie Grill is bucking the trend as the largest 100% vegan chain in the country, bringing real food that “celebrates the veggie, the fruit, the grain, and the nut” to the people. Veggie Grill has over 30 locations spread across the west coast and is soon to begin their east coast invasion, taking root in Cambridge, MA before spreading to NYC in 2019. If you haven’t yet heard about their infamous B-Wing Salad or sat down to a towering Beyond Burger, you’re in for a treat.

My first taste of Veggie Grill was many years ago when it was still a fledgling eatery based in Portland, OR. Although I’ve dabbled with the bay area locations once a year or so, they still remained just a bit beyond easy access… Until now. Planting themselves right in the heart of downtown Berkeley, it’s dangerously easy to pop in whenever the craving for Tempura Green Beans strikes, or worse yet, simply order $1 delivery through the app.

Meatless mains feature prominently through partnerships with Beyond Meat, Gardein and Hodo, appealing to the staunch omnivore and old-school vegan alike. Many reviews come from confused patrons who realize only after plowing through their entree that it was entirely plant-based. This is exactly the kind of accessibility that the industry needs now; not dumbed-down flavors, but a level playing field to unite eaters of all stripes. You can still get your spicy Buffalo Wings with creamy ranch dressing; your soulful Southern Fried Chicken plate piled high with mashed potatoes and gravy; your bright and zesty Mediterranean Super greens Salad, if you so choose.

My personal favorite of the moment is the Rustic Farm Bowl for its deeply umami grilled mushrooms, roasted yams, braised white beans, broccoli pesto, roasted tomatoes, and red pepper sauce. Every element would be a fine bite by itself, but in concert, creates a symphony of carefully tuned tastes, in perfect proportion. It’s a grounding meal that always leaves me feeling satisfied, energized rather than weighed down, easy to grab and just keep going. That’s what fast casual dining should really be about, right? Fuss-free, wholly satisfying fare that fits into the existing social fabric, rather than tearing a hole through it. If you haven’t yet tried Veggie Grill, prepare yourself. You may just see one opening up near you soon.

Don’t forget to download the app before you go and use my code HannahKa8145 for $5 off when you sign up!