Noooooooo! How can I miss this?

Just read my Tablehopper newsletter, and saw this:

***Wednesday March 18th is the next ~THREE ON FIVE BEVERAGE BATTLE AT FIFTH FLOOR~: Vegetarian Showdown. Emily Wines will pair wines against beer selections from Craig & Beth Wathen of City Beer Store, and cocktails from celebrated mixologist Marco Dionysos of Clock Bar, with the added pairing challenge of the Gascony-inspired vegetarian menu. 7:30pm. $125 per person, excluding tax and gratuity. Please specify “Beverage Battle” when making your reservation. 12 Fourth St. at Mission, 415-348-1555.***

Vegetarian! Alcoholic! That’s me! Just my luck, I’ll be in DC on the 18th, for one night only. So promise me, if you have the means, go. Support them so they’ll do more veggie stuff. I’m all stressed that it’ll flop because of the economy, but they’ll blame the vegetarians. Us animal-snugglers always get the stink-eye of suspicion in these matters.

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Oleana

Hello, loyal friends. Just a quick missive today, to let you know I’m alive. I write from the snowy banks of the Charles River, where it is MOTHER FUCKING FREEZING. I think I forgot what real cold feels like. Thanks, Boston. Consider me schooled.

Anyhoo, I had a lovely solo dinner at the bar of a place a friend of mine recommended: Oleana. And let me tell you, it’s embarrassing when a town like Boston can whoop the pants off a town like San Francisco in the “friendly to vegetarians” department. Oleana is a rare gem—a restaurant that offers equality for meaties and veggies alike. I had choices, people. Good ones.

I started with a Swiss Chard and Eggplant Bisque, with Tomato Jam and Cheese and Pesto Panini. The bisque was ever-so-creamy without being too heavy, and pleasantly complex. The tomato jam gave it a hint of brightness, like some postcard from summer in a bowl full of winter goodness. The panini wasn’t as crunchy as I might have liked, but the flavors were great, and it dunked in the bisque like Paul Pierce over Tim Duncan. (Couldn’t resist a little Celtics love, since I’m in Bean Town and all.)

Next up, I tried their Ricotta and Bread Dumplings with Red Wine, Porcini and Black Kale. My waiter—who was admittedly the bartender—described the dish like gnocci, but that was a bit of a misnomer. The dumplings lacked that beautiful gummy resistance I was expecting from his description. Still, on this 25 degree night, the Kale and Wine were stewed to produce a flavor you rarely get in vegetarian cooking. A sort of hearty-savory-nom-nom that’s the hallmark of meatier dishes. I, for one, was stoked to eat it.

That’s it for tonight. My blogging muscles are out of shape. Gotta get myself on the keyboard treadmill, one page at a time.

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Mission Beach Café

This one’s gonna be a toughie, friends.

I want to rave about Mission Beach Café. I really do. For starters, I had a fantastic evening there. (But I suspect that had to do with the company.) And I have to give them huge props for offering a vegetarian entrée that wasn’t risotto. But.

But.

My friend ordered the Watermelon and Cherry Tomato Salad with Basil, Feta, and Sherry Vinaigrette. I ordered Heirloom Tomato Salad with English Cucumbers, Goat Cheese and Mustard Croutons. Sounds like two very different salads, right? Well, not so much. When they arrived, they looked exactly the same. I’m talking Mary Kate and Ashley here, in the Full House days, when they played the same freakin’ baby. The plating was identical, down to the croutons and the cheese crumbles. That seemed weird to me. I mean, they were offering two dishes that would inevitably be served together at some point during the evening. Why plate them up like twins? Literally, we wondered if they’d messed up the order and served us the same thing. And for both of them, the flavor was meh. Not bad, just meh.

Now for the entrée. Again—and I can’t stress this enough—mad points for trying. Like, I’d eat one hundred somewhat failed attempts at something interesting for every risotto in this town. They served up Wild Mushroom Corn Crepes with Spinach, Ricotta, Pine Nuts and Brown Butter. Rather inexplicably topped with a big heap of salad. Was it decent? Totally. Was it worth eating again? Mmmm, probably not.

Oh, man, I feel guilty now. All I do is bitch, bitch, bitch about the lack of interesting vegetarian options. Then when I get one, I’m not satisfied. But people—that’s how you know I care. That’s how know you can trust me. If you ask me, “Does this outfit make me look fat?” I’m going to tell you. That way, on the days when you look really hot, you won’t think I’m buttering you up. Deal?

One final note. We opted for the Coconut Cream Raspberry Pie. It was Coconut Cream Pie with a few raspberries poked on top. I dunno. Kinda felt like a cop out.

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Ubuntu rocks me. Again.

Did you ever meet someone who’s absolutely beautiful in every way? I mean, gorgeous to look at, kind-hearted, thoughtful, the whole package?

That’s Ubuntu. If I didn’t love the place so much, I’d have to hate it, because it’s just too perfect. It makes other restaurants look bad.

Okay, maybe I hyperbolize. But Christ, the place is good. Check out my original review for more gushing praise.

This Sunday’s lunch started with Leaves and Things, a perfectly composed salad of greens, flowers, herbs and roots. Then, Radishes with Chevre and Nori, with a mustard and banyuls vinaigrette and black sea salt. (Banyuls is a dessert wine. News to me.) Chevre and Nori together—what a revelation. And the black sea salt? Holy Mary, mother of God. It made the radishes sing in six-part harmony.

The Cucumbers with Miso “Bagna Cauda” was another stand out in an entirely outstanding meal. Let me lay down the players on the plate: Crispy fingerlings, ficoide glaciale (which is a succulent), shaved parmesan and olive caramel. Insane. INSANE. The ficoide glaciale shimmered as if it were frozen, and tasted like citrus surprise. The fingerlings added a warm, grounded goodness, and the olive caramel…well, the olive took the whole dish up to eleven.

The Cauliflower in a Cast Iron Pot. Comfort in a cup.

The Anson Mills Farros with Young Carrots. Vibration on a plate.

The Raspberry Sorbet Float with rose geranium soda, watermelon ice and lychee tapioca. Refreshment in a glass.

And the Mini Carrot Cupcakes with spiced frosting and tiny (tiny!) candied carrots. Bite-sized heaven.

I could go on and on, but that might keep you from clicking over to Open Table and making a reservation of your own. Go. Now. If you’re a vegetarian, you owe it to yourself. If you’re not a vegetarian, you’ll never think of vegetarian food in the same way again.

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Filed under Exclusively Veg, Mid-range Meals, Reviews

Opaque: Dining in the Dark

It’s the year 2028. We’ve finally got our jet packs and Golden Retrievers rule the Earth as benevolent dictators. At a futuristic cocktail party (where blue fizzing drinks are served by robots) someone mentions the notion of dark dining.

“Dear Lord,” exclaims the hostess—a woman who’s likely wearing a shiny, silver mini-dress. “Dark dining is soooo 2008.”

Isn’t it, though? A few years ago, I’d never heard of dark dining. This year, it’s everywhere. Is it a fad, or a movement that’s here to stay?

Judging from the food at Opaque, I’d vote fad.

But let me back up a bit.

Dark dining is just what it sounds like, though nothing can really prepare you for the experience itself. (Which is far better than the meal, and almost worth the cost.) Literally, your food is served in a pitch-black, can’t-see-your-hand-in-front of your face dining room. Some servers are visually impaired, others are not.

The experience begins in a softly lit antechamber. Diners choose from a set menu, with chicken, beef, fish and vegetarian choices. You can elect to be surprised, or to read a description of the individual components of your meal.

The front staff communicates with the wait staff via headsets. When it’s time to be seated, your server appears at the door to the dining room. You’re encouraged to grab on to your server’s shoulders, form a sort of conga line, and head into the darkness.

This is the point at which I became terrified.

How big was the room? Who else was in it? Was there a gaping chasm plummeting to a pit of boiling lava just to the left of my feet? I had no idea. And it really threw me for a loop, which was an incredible learning experience.

Our server—who, for the record, was sweet, patient, and very good at her job—led us to our table. She described the table setting in detail, and helped us get seated. The sound of my own voice felt deafening in the blackness. It took me quite a while to adjust. For the first few minutes, I was so disoriented, I couldn’t form a coherent sentence.

Then the giggling set in.

Ian, one of my very favorite coworkers, got us started by earnestly whispering, “Quiet, you guys. You’ll wake mom and dad.” From that point on, it was all over. It was like someone had left the nitrous tank unscrewed in the corner.

We started with an amuse bouche—a goat cheese filled tomato that was actually pretty good. (Set on a spoon that was, in turn, set on a plate, it was relatively easy to eat. Good starter food.)

Then our salads arrived. Imagine passing a salad down the table to your friend in absolute darkness. Childhood trust issues tend to arise. You also get the opportunity to discover what your neighbor’s hands feel like. I lucked out sitting next to my other beloved coworker, Isabela. She’s very soft.

Anyhoo, the salad course was a letdown. Passable, but wholly unremarkable. No need to belabor the point.

Trying to refill one’s wine glass in the dark, however—very fun. (More giggling ensued.)

Between the salad and main course, we were offered crudités with three different dips. We opted to stay in the dark (har har) about their origins, but quickly worked out the list: Roasted red pepper, wasabi aioli, and curry were the flavors du jour. Many a finger entered the dip. Which was, once again, a source of much schoolgirl giggle-age.

My Pasta Primavera was fine, in a middle-American wedding banquet sort of way. But here’s the thing. My three course meal—salad, entrée, and dessert—was $99.00. For 99 bucks I expect something, well, nice. The experience of being in the dark was incredible, but the food was a complete disappointment. Just imagine how amazing it would be to enjoy a delicious meal in the dark—how the flavors might pop with your senses heightened. I dunno. I imagined something akin to auto-erotic asphyxiation. But nothing popped for me. It just fizzled. Sigh.

So anyway. Mango panna cotta. Blah, blah, blah. (Yeah, I know it’s got gelatin in it. I just couldn’t hack another flourless chocolate cake, you dig?)

All in all, I had a great time. But it was the pure entertainment and education value that drove the evening. Would I recommend it? Sure. Go once. It’s an incredible exercise in empathy and a fun experience to share with friends. Still, if dark dining is survive into the teen years of the century, the folks at Opaque have gotta step up the chow. Otherwise, there’s no reason for a return visit.

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Boulette’s Larder

A few months ago, I had a wonderful lunch at Boulette’s Larder in the Ferry Building. At the time, there were no vegetarian options on the menu, and I had to ask the server if the chef could make something up for me. Luckily, they were happy to oblige, and I was treated to a gorgeous lunch of impeccably seasoned veggies, perfectly executed.

These days, they’re making me even happier. A Vegetarian Farmer’s Market Lunch now sits on the menu, out, loud and proud. (Fists in the air, y’all.)

Today’s selection: Full Belly Farm Roasted Eggplant, Riverdog Farm Cherry Tomato Medley, Blue Heron Farm Pardon Peppers and Roasted Fingerling Potatoes, Dirty Girl Farm Haricot Vert, plus Yogurt with fresh Tumeric and a fat stack of Papadum.

Let me lay it down for you. These folks are vegetable masters. The Haricot Vert were cooked on the money, all thin and snappy like a Mission hipster in skinny jeans. The eggplant melted in my mouth. And the Roasted Pardon Peppers gave the whole dish a zippy kick in the pants.

I’m thrilled that they decided to put the option on the menu. Even my omnivorous lunch-mates were jealous when they saw the bounty in my basket. (Wow, that’s sounds…uh, really naughty.) So get thee to Boulette’s Larder and place your order for the Farmer’s Market Lunch. Let’s reward them for their awesomeness.

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Well, hello there.

It’s been tough times here at A Few Reservations international headquarters. Maybe the curse of Kristin has come to pass. Or maybe I picked up an enchanted Tiki in Hawaii and it’s starting to haunt me, Brady Bunch style. In short, life has unraveled. And blogging has fallen by the wayside.

Luckily, I had dinner Saturday night with a few fantastic friends, including the lovely and talented Michael Procopio, author of Food for the Thoughtless, and contributor to Bay Area Bites and the SF Examiner. His guilt trip worked wonders: Here I am typing.

The thing is, I can’t really blame my lack of blogging entirely on my current mental state. It’s also due, in large part, to the fact that I keep being disappointed by my culinary forays. And frankly, I’m tired of bitching about it.

Exhibit A: A recent meal at Coco 500. Now, Coco is a go-to restaurant for me. An easy recommendation for just about any occasion, and a sure-fire crowd pleaser when I’m taking folks out on the town. Last time I was there, I asked if the chef could pull together a vegetarian entrée plate for me. I wasn’t disappointed. So, this time around, I asked for the same thing. Guess what they sent out?

Yeah. Risotto.

Of all the gorgeous vegetables they could have used. All the lovely sides they have to offer. Fuck me. Risotto wasn’t even on the menu that night. Did they have a pot waiting in the wings, marked “For Emergency Vegetarian Use Only”? Sure, the risotto tasted great. But really, that’s not the point.

The aforementioned dinner with my boys at RNM was less disappointing. No vegetarian entrees on the menu, of course. But at least the collection of sides they brought out was truly well seasoned. Some asparagus, some spinach, some farro, and a downright tasty mushroom gnocci. (I know: Gnocci and farro on the same plate? Look, I’m trying to be charitable here.)

This is what I don’t get. Why is it a crime to put something vegetarian on the menu? If the chef is willing to make an offering upon request, then why not commit and put it on the page? It sure would make me feel a whole lot better. You know, like they actually valued me as a customer instead of treating me as a special needs case. It’s not 1957, and we don’t live in Nebraska. No one is going to label your restaurant a hippie joint if you dare to offer an entrée sans carnage.

I’m getting tired of beating that drum, you know? Has anyone out there had a fantastic vegetarian main plate lately? And if so, where? Tell me. Please. I promise to try it and scribe a happy, glowing review. Maybe it’ll even pull me out of my funk. Write and let me know. You can consider it a public service.

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Filed under Mid-range Meals, Rants, Reviews