Friday, August 11, 2006

L.A. Vegan

I’ve lived in the San Francisco area for 6 years. I’ve had my experience with the hippie scene, dined on vegetarian raw food a few times, and I once even ate a “sustainably conscious” meal served on an oak leaf. So why am I still intrigued by vegan cuisine? For 2 reasons: it’s healthy and it’s impressive.

My first professional cooking gig was as a vegan chef, so trust me when I say that tasty vegan cuisine is impressive. Cooking imaginative, satisfying meals without meat, dairy or animal products of any kind (including such an innocent-sounding ingredient as honey) is NOT an easy task. Well-prepared vegan food can be described as creativity at its finest. When a cook is limited in the ingredients that she’s allowed to use, and many classic cooking techniques no longer apply, she’s got to have some innovation up her sleeve, and a calibrated palate to boot.

When I was in Los Angeles this past weekend I sampled a fair share of vegan food, out of a sense of adventure and a desire for some culinary inspiration. I can’t lie – I stumbled upon the first vegan restaurant purely by accident; it was located next to a chocolate shop that I came to see. (There, now that’s my dirty little confession.)

The restaurant was impressively full for 3:30 on a Saturday afternoon. And I was delighted to see that the diners were more than just your stereotypical gaunt hippies teething on leaves of romaine. The vegan diners at this location included healthy-looking women with scripts in their hands (hmm…celebrity spotting?), as well as burly male companions, guys with baseball hats, and what you might call just “regular” people. Even I, who’s lived in California for several years, and who eats vegan occasionally, expected the clientele to be either as thin as a sheet of nori or as mangy as a plate of sprouts. But this clientele included a truly diverse demographic. To my delight, I even saw a table of hipster Gen-X guys chatting it up at the table next to me. Granted, they were eating the mock meatloaf and veggie burritos (the closest menu selections to meat imposters), but they were digging into their food with the gusto of Texans at a BBQ joint.

Over at a nearby banquette, I sat enjoying an order of vegetarian sushi - a roll of brown rice, tempeh, kale and carrots; chilled gazpacho, and a side of wheat-free, whole-grain cornbread with a side of carrot-cashew spread. It was delightful. Loved the flavors, loved the textures. And anyone who claims that vegan cuisine is a close relative to bird food will cast a dubious eye when I say that I was full for the rest of the day. So full, in fact, that I couldn’t find room for dinner later that night.

Later in the weekend I sampled some vegan “salmon” rolls, a barley cookie and, believe it or not, a very impressive dairy-free, fruit juice-sweetened, chocolate-cherry truffle.

Curious about vegan food? Here are 2 Los Angeles restaurants to check out:

RFD 414 N. La Cienega Blvd.
Leaf Cuisine 11938 W. Washington Blvd.

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