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