Rise to Shine Again

Mezze Sampler

Ful Medames

Baba Ganoush

Soup Du Jour

Kofta (meatballs with allspice, cumin, mint, cilantro, onion, and olive oi)

Saha Yellow Curry (aeasonal vegetables, wild mushrooms, tofu,  rice or quinoa)

Bastilla (almonds, onions, parsley, spices wrapped in phyllo and baked with powdered sugar garnish)

Wild Mushroom Knaffe (wild mushrooms, shredded phyllo, vegan cream cheese, coconut-chermoula-chipotle sauce)

Ya Mama (roasted seasonal fruit, date & almond marzipan, and dark chocolate wrapped in phyllo)

From San Francisco to Berkeley and back again, the east bay lost a shining star last spring when the cooks at Saha packed their knives, but the light continues to burn brightly on the other side of the bridge. Originally a destination commanding crowds inside the Hotel Carlton, Chef Mohamed Aboghanem has reignited the flame back where it all started sixteen years ago.

Drawing from a lifetime of Yemeni cookery and family recipes, Chef Aboghanem sources local, seasonal ingredients to lend a contemporary twist to his menu. Boasting a wealth of vegan, gluten-free dishes, his own daughter’s dietary needs inspired the innovative, meatless bill of fare, but rave reviews keep these offerings in heavy rotation. Presented with elegance and finesse, the experience is on par with fine dining, without the typical price tag. Bold spices romance the plate, capturing nuanced, harmonious flavors from start to finish, allowing diners to focus their amorous intentions on their dates.

Separated from the boutique hotel lobby by gently parted curtains, Saha is a world apart from it’s humble roots, but still true to the soul of the cuisine.

Saha
1075 Sutter Street
San Francisco, CA 94109

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Meatless Meet-Up

Macadamia stuffed date, pomegranate
Endive, chive walnut cheese, pear
Potato nettle croquette, hedgehog mushrooms

Baby Bloomsdale spinach, broccoli, tahini, nettle gomasio salad

Baby mixed greens, beets, fennel cara cara orange, hazelnuts, macadamia cheese

Black eyed peas, smoked tomato, collard greens

Broccoli soup, panisse, cauliflower, black olive, Meyer lemon

Black trumpet mushroom lasagna, spinach, herbed cashew cheese, spring garlic marinara, rapini

Lemon cloud cake, lemon curd, vanilla custard, lemon coconut whip, cara cara orange, macadamia crunch

Chocolate bread pudding, vanilla anglaise, blood orange caramel

Encuentro; a meeting, a reunion, a match, or place to gather. Encuentro in Oakland, CA is all that and more, providing a place in the heart of the bay area to celebrate plant-based cuisine and carefully curated wines. Previously existing as a daily restaurant, Encuentro now hosts monthly tasting menus where chef Lacey Sher showcases her culinary creativity. Seasonally inspired and locally sourced, no two menus are alike. The exact dishes on offer are almost besides the point, taking the complete experience into account, because the ending is always the same. If you’re lucky enough to snag a ticket for these limited seatings, there’s no doubt you’ll meet enticing bites upon arrival, a rich, flavorful entree that satisfies with substance and style alike, sweet morsels for dessert, and perhaps a new friend along the way.

Encuentro
550 2nd Street
Oakland, CA 94607

Noodles for All

Between the hundreds of healthy eating regimes, food intolerance and allergies, and moral dietary restriction, to say nothing of basic taste preferences, the number of landmines one might hit just trying to get the whole family to the table can make everyday meal planning a war zone. When it comes down to it, though, there are just two types of eaters out there: Noodle lovers and noodle lusters. There really is a place where everyone can eat in peace, allowing everyone to fully embrace their cravings, healthy or more hedonistic. Taking great pains to become more inclusive than ever, Noodles & Company has launched a new initiative to offer dishes with flavors and options for every diet, preference, pickiness, and lifestyle.

Figuring out just what is or isn’t vegan is a top concern, especially when some dishes might be just one easy modification away from perfection. Penne rosa sounds inextricably bound by dairy, but believe it or not, can easily come without cream or cheese for a satisfying Italian feast. I wouldn’t have even thought to ask had it not been for the handy new personalized nutrition calculator which lists not only potential allergens, calories, and ingredients, but suggests swaps to better suit your specific needs. Unlike the harsh rules imposed by some unwelcoming, militant chefs, customization is genuinely encouraged here!

Best of all, the encouragement to tailor your meal to taste allows for infinite creativity. Everything is made fresh, to order, so it’s not a problem to mix and match, add and subtract to your heart’s content.

Need something without gluten? Try the pipette, which bear such a satisfying, al-dente bite that I had trouble believing they were made of rice and corn, rather than traditional wheat.

Want something a bit lighter? Go for the zoodles (ie, zucchini noodles), which pair brilliantly with the spicy peanut sauce, if I do say so myself.

Craving all the veggies? Load ’em up, adding a rainbow of produce to the already verdant whole wheat spaghetti fresca, sans cheese.

Need a bigger protein punch? Try the spicy Korean noodles with tofu instead of beef, and avail yourself heartily to extra sriracha on the condiment bar.

I’ve passed by Noodles & Company many times before without giving it a second thought, which strikes me as a terrible oversight now. These aren’t your average bowlfuls of bland, mushy food court pastas. The Japanese pan noodles are the OG plant-based option, standing the test of time as part of the menu since day one. Had I just ventured in and tried those chewy, beautifully charred strands of udon, twisting around tangles of broccoli florets and shredded carrots years ago, this superlative experience would have come as no surprise. It’s a good thing the Noodles & Company empire is continuing to expand, with many more locations in the works.

Whether your food preferences are dictated by a strict diet or a picky palate, there’s a place for everyone at this table.

This review was made possible as a collaboration with Noodles & Company. My opinions can not be bought and all content is original. This page may contain affiliate links; thank you for supporting my blog!

Mangan Tayon! Let’s Eat!

Do you ever eat with your hands? I’m not talking about little snacks like popcorn or crackers. I’m talking about full meals, hearty stews with rice and noodles, scooped up by outstretched fingers reaching across the dinner table. It flies in the face of traditional western etiquette, flagrantly breaking unspoken rules against this literal power grab while in the presence of others. Yet, far from the supposed faux pas I’d been raised to view it as since birth, this is simply the expectation at any of the meals presented by Free for Real Kitchen. No forks, no spoons, no knives, no chopsticks. Hell, no napkins, unless you get into a truly desperate mess.

Crafting a family-style Filipino Ilocano feast featuring vegan versions of traditionally meat-heavy fare, it’s a feat of modern cookery that such bold flavors could even exist in plant-based form. Dinardaraan, also known as “chocolate meat,” would be made with offal and pig’s blood anywhere else, but comes to life here with tofu, preserved turnips, shiitake mushrooms, and fermented black beans instead. Agar-based salted eggs posing as Itlog na Maalat could make anyone do a double take, based on both the uncanny appearance and sulfuric salinity. Jackfruit makes an appearance of course, not as a meat alternative but paired with banana blossoms in the Adobong Langka at Puso ng Saging, a naturally vegan preparation that dazzled with the unassuming combination of tamari, garlic, vinegar, bay leaf, and coconut milk.

More beguiling than the food, however, is the experience of sharing such a feast in such a visceral way with your neighbors. Strangers awkwardly shift around at first, pawing timidly at whatever mysterious mound lays closest, afraid to fully engage. With a few bites comes greater confidence, whetting the appetite for more. Conversations grow louder and deeper, hands fly farther and faster, and the whole room moves and sways in a different kind of dinner dance before long. Dropping formalities to boldly share space allows in a world of new flavor, along with an experience unlike any other.

Kamayan, eating with your hands, fills your heart perhaps even more so than your stomach. No matter how stuffed you end up after heartily partaking in over a dozen delicacies and dessert, warm memories of this communal event still last much longer.

 

Somebody Call the Kopps

Imagine world-class cuisine with Michelin aspirations, celebrating seasonal, local purveyors, and regional specialties. Take that very same passion, elevating the everyday vegetable without any animal products, and apply it to an all-you-can-eat brunch buffet at a fraction of the cost of a comparable tasting menu. Gourmets and gourmands line up for a spot at Kopps in Berlin, Germany every weekend because the dream actually comes to life right here. The reality is far more satisfying than mere musings to feed the mind.

Easily one of the best meals I’ve had in years, there aren’t words enough to recommend this experience highly enough. Forget what you think you know about steam table warming dishes of limp hash browns or watery tofu scrambles; these are dishes on par with those offered by Millennium, or Candle 79, or Vedge, for some frame of reference. Serving staggering quantities of fine dining-quality food at fast-casual cafeteria prices, a single luxurious Sunday brunch would be worth the cost of round trip airfare alone. I would camp out here every single weekend if it was possible.

Homemade meatless charcuterie lines the cold station along with dairy-free cheeses and butters, begging to be lavished on an array of soft fresh breads. Marinated vegetables sing with a balanced acidic bite to perfectly cut through the richness while incorporating subtle notes of garlic and fresh herbs that are so well blended, it’s impossible to tease the exact combination apart. Of course you have your yogurts, chia puddings, fruits, and granola if you want to keep it continental, but what a terrible shame that would be.

Enter without expectations and prepare yourself for happy surprises. No two days are alike on this menu, which is built around vegetables found in season, first and foremost. Visiting at the height of spargelzeit afforded me the greatest indulgence of thick, fat white asparagus stalks bathed in creamy hollandaise sauce; a highlight of the entire trip, undoubtedly a fleeting delicacy for regulars, too. Pair that with luscious barley risotto, buttery grits, or even tempura fried cauliflower, if you feel the least bit self-conscious about unloading the whole chafing dish onto your plate.

Do come back for seconds, and thirds, and fourths. We haven’t even talked about the silver dollar pancakes, the plum crumble, the berry compote! Leave room for the soup while you’re there, which happened to be a deeply soothing, silky carrot-coconut number on this chilly spring morning. Don’t scoff at the salads, either, which are more than forgettable leafy fare. Tender lentils mingle with roasted beets and a light vinaigrette in one abundant bowl, while lightly pickled cucumbers remain perky and bright in another. A devilish eggless salad tempts nearby, with or without plant-based bacon.

If you managed to leave room for dessert, you’d be treated to airy chocolate mousse, tangy squares of cheesecake, gingersnap cookie bites… And perhaps, by this point, a food coma to last you until the next weekend. Actually, that would be merciful, because it’s awfully hard to go back to any other establishment in the meantime, knowing what you might be missing.

Make reservations well in advance, leave plenty of time to circle the block while hunting fruitlessly for parking, and block out the rest of your day. You have a lot of culinary ground to cover.

Kopps
Linienstraße 94
10115 Berlin, Germany

 

 

 

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