Thanksgiving Valentine

Valentine's Cafe
1793 Church (at 30th Street), 285-2257. Open for dinner from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., until 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Brunch is Saturdays and Sundays 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Reservations for weekends recommended. Thanksgiving dinner 12:30, 2:30, 4:30, and 6:30 p.m.; reservations necessary. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Parking moderately difficult. Muni via the J Church, 24 Divisadero, and 26 Valencia.

Most of my vegetarian friends will do almost anything to avoid the family Thanksgiving. "Have some turkey, honey!" "Please, Mom, I'll be just fine with all these potatoes and yams and cranberries and green beans and ..." "Honey, it's just not Thanksgiving without turkey. You're gonna die of malnutrition if you don't eat something!"

Although personally I find it difficult to regard turkey as a genuine member of the animal kingdom (I've met cauliflowers with bigger brains), a gander at Valentine's alluring fowl-free Thanksgiving menu ($35 for four courses plus a midway lemongrass sorbet) reminded me that the best of the feast ain't the bird but the fixin's. So I fixed to get myself over there two Thursdays ahead to preview some of the festal dishes, since many are on the regular menu. (If all seatings have filled before you make your Thanksgiving reservations, you can have a similar feast any other night.) First I invited Chet. "Oh, I just ate there two days ago," he said. "The risotto was just marvelous -- and, oh, those desserts!" Then I called Danny the musician. "The little place at the end of Church Street? It's really good, but I've got gigs all this week." Two raves, no takers, but the third try was the charm -- photographer Pat and Webmistress Chris would join me while poor TJ writhed in bed with a bug.

Named for the owner's dog (whose portrait decorates the door, signboard, and menu), and with a new head chef on board since last spring, the comfortable storefront cafe seats about two dozen, with a few more tables outdoors in fair weather. Inside, ambient pop/jazz rang a bit too loud for easy table conversation. Most of the dishes are vegan; those containing eggs or dairy are double-asterisked on the menu, which changes seasonally. One appetizer (a vegan quesadilla) sports ersatz cheese and chorizo, but most of the current menu is free of flora trying to pass for fauna. Instead, the cooking draws international inspiration from various veggie-loving cuisines -- including old-time agricultural America.

Working on our order, we moistened the hearty house-baked bread from a cruet of wimpy yellow oil; it seemed to lack that magical ultravirginity that enables greener oils to tame unicorns and joust amain with puissant wheat breads. Dinner began with a big bowl of splendid soup ($4), featuring sliced butternut squash and black beans (discrete and succulent, not mashed and gluey) plus supporting veggie-tidbits. The light, intriguing broth was imbued with a subtle Indian-style spice mixture, redolent of coriander seed. Since Valentine's has a Bengali co-chef, we had to try samosas ($4.95), potato-filled pastry triangles. The filling tasted like Indian home cooking, moderately spicy and weightier than most local restaurant versions. Heavier yet, but less endearing, was a savory cheesecake of sweet potato and chevre ($7.95) with sage pesto and apple relish. "Hmm" and "Weird," said Chris and Pat. The cheese was so goaty, it tasted more like a product of Billy than Nanny, and it butted aside every other flavor in the composition, even the sprightly fruit salsa and "chilpotle-pecan crust." Nary a chile could we taste under Billy. In contrast, though, the disks of Southern-style fried green tomatoes ($5.95) nearly soared off the plate to become UFOs in food heaven. In this perfect autumnal appetizer, the last tomatoes plucked unripe from the dying vines were sweet-sour in an ethereal cornmeal batter.

With our appetizers we enjoyed glasses of a limestone-cool organic French chardonnay. The beer list is short and strange, but a respectable wine list ($14-32) represents numerous winemaking countries at reasonable markups (about 250 percent of retail), with most choices available by the glass for about $5. Wines are served in thick, squat jelly glasses, Parisian bistro style, as though to take them down a peg. (Real Parisian bistros probably use such glasses to obscure the aroma of the evil Algerian plonk they pour.) When we'd emptied our glasses, changing to a different wine (a Chilean sauvignon blanc) for the main course wasn't easy. Our server was evidently new, and also seemed sort of spacey. Bringing and serving the correct wine were vexing problems she couldn't solve until we were nearly done eating. When we asked the identity of the grains in the "four-grain risotto," after consulting the cooks she gave a breathless recitation of, seemingly, the cast of Carmen.

The risotto ($11.95) was a hearty, garlicky monolith, the size and shape of a standing brick, topped with a forest-green cap of tender, very garlicky Swiss chard. The four horsemen of the Risottolypse were weihani (light brown semipolished rice), amaranth, arborio ("Escamillo"), and Michaela (Don Jose's jilted sweetheart), mixed with shredded onion. The grains were lightly sweetened by a port wine demiglace, and encircled by plump, moist-firm rehydrated sun-dried tomatoes, smoky-sweet from grilling. We enjoyed a smooth, serene, slightly spicy Thai vegetable curry ($8.95), with broccoli florets, zucchini, chard, and rectangles of firm tofu in a rich coconut-lemongrass broth, with rice on the side. At first bite, Pat revealed her shocking secret -- she doesn't like cilantro! On the curry's third trip around the table, though, she dug in enthusiastically, now that the herb had cooked in the broth. "Despite the chard in everything," said Chris, "each dish is very distinct. Not like in a lot of veggie restaurants, where everything tastes the same, and you end up feeling like something's missing."

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