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For Health and Pleasure 

After a quarter of a century, S.F.'s venerable vegetarian restaurant is still leading by example

Wednesday, Dec 1 2004
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I've never had a more sustained period of dreadful eating than I did for two heedless weeks this fall, when I went from the Telluride Film Festival, an intense schedule of dozens of movies crammed into Labor Day weekend, to the Toronto ditto, even more movies to choose from, hundreds spread out over 10 days. Annie cooked us cheeseburgers in a borrowed Telluride kitchen as I watched Bush give his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention (it's amazing we were able to eat), the night before the festival started, and that's just about the last hot thing I remember consuming for the next several days. I was too distracted by the constant availability of carefully selected cinema, either brand-new (Kinsey, The House of Flying Daggers, Palindrome) or brought back from obscurity (a three-film tribute to Czech director Gustav Machaty, Daryl Duke and Rip Torn's '70s Payday), to pause for carefully selected sustenance. I existed, mainly, on floods of coffee. There was a rumor that Telluride had some swell eateries (one, I was told, specialized in wild game, including caribou), but I didn't see the inside of a single restaurant while I was there. I stood in line on Main Street for a pricey hot dog two or three days after the burger, but my eye was on the adjacent queue waiting to get into the Peter Bogdanovich lecture on movie stars he has known. If it moved before I got to the head of the line for the snack that was going to serve as both breakfast and lunch, I would join it. I got my hot dog, but only just.

Things were slightly better, nutritionwise, in Toronto; though the mainstays of my diet were coffee (again) and the superior brand of chocolate-covered peanuts known as Glosettes available in the movie theaters, I'd been to Toronto often enough that I knew where to grab a decent sandwich. And I actually turned my attention away from the seductive silver screen long enough to have three terrific restaurant repasts there, in that wonderful restaurant town: the ritual sautéed fresh lobster and crab dishes that draw me back year after year to the aptly named Excellent Chinese Restaurant (263 Spadina, 416/929-7598), a fancy French prix fixe feast in an odd hybrid of downstairs club and upstairs restaurant (The Fifth, 225 Richmond West, 416/979-3005), and classy seafood at the new Starfish Oyster Bed and Grill (100 Adelaide East, 416/366-7827). All three are highly recommended, should you find yourself in Toronto and in need of a good meal.

But I knew I wasn't doing myself any favors, nutritionally. One thought kept recurring to me during those days of caffeine and chocolate: When I got back to San Francisco, I would eat at Greens.

Greens is the world-famous vegetarian restaurant established by the Zen Center in Fort Mason a quarter of a century ago. From the beginning it was wildly popular, wildly well-reviewed, wildly influential. Its first cookbook, The Greens Cookbook, published about eight years after the restaurant opened, released vegetarian cooking from the hegemony of the joyless and the tasteless, celebrating freshness, seasonality, and sensuality, and drawing from many international cuisines. (When I left messages on three friends' phones asking if they had a copy I could borrow, it turned out that not only did all of them possess it, but they also had half a dozen other Greens-related volumes -- by founding chef Deborah Madison; Edward Espe Brown, co-writer of the first cookbook and author of the earlier Zen-related title The Tassajara Bread Book; and current Greens chef Annie Somerville, one of the staff members thanked in the very first book.)

I don't remember just when I had my initial meal at Greens; it was sometime in its first decade, and it was a big occasion for me. I recall feeling intimidated by what I'd read about the place, exactly as one does before making a pilgrimage to some four-star temple of cuisine in France. We were there for lunch, and I can still see the dazzling light bouncing off the water of the marina right outside the windows, and remember feeling as if the soaring room, with arching rafters high above, was in the hold of some enormous, beautifully crafted wooden ship. I also remember exquisitely arranged, delicate salads, very Chez Panisse-y (Alice Waters and the rest of her crew are also thanked in the acknowledgements of The Greens Cookbook), and sturdy Southwestern-style stew, and a fragile, shaky corn pudding that became the benchmark for all the corn puddings that followed in my life. (The one flaw for me was in the service, which was a little too Zen, hushed and ritualistic.)

I've returned at intervals over the years, and eating at Greens has always been a joy, both for my palate and, I imagined, for my poor old body, daily challenged by a daunting variety of meat, fat, and spirits. (Fat and spirits, I will point out, have always been treated with respect at Greens, which puts out good butter with its bread and has an interesting, well-selected wine list.)

But life being what it is, it was a couple of months after Telluride and Toronto before I made the trip out to Fort Mason. (How nice for us that the Army settled on some of the choicest land in San Francisco -- Fort Mason, the Presidio -- and then abandoned its posts to the arts.) I was joined for dinner by Bernice, who eats everything, and Chi-hui, a vegetarian; it was the first time we'd had a meal in a place where I knew he could eat anything on the menu, which made me feel very relaxed and happy. The daily printed list was headed "25 Years and Still Green!"

The room, which boasts a dozen different kinds of wood in its construction, looked much as it did on my first visit, including a focal-point massive polished redwood sculpture that we were sitting almost close enough to to touch, the three of us slightly crowded around a window table meant for two. We ordered a half-bottle of white wine (a 2003 St. Veran burgundy) and a half-bottle of red (a 2002 Dashe Cellars Dry Creek zinfandel) and perused the menu, which describes each dish with a long list of ingredients that increases your interest as you read instead of perplexing you or throwing in something that seems superfluous or senseless.

We ignored the salads, seductive as they seemed (how did we resist the garden salad -- butter lettuce, watercress, and red endive, with Comice pears, pomegranates, warm Bleu d'Auvergne croutons, and pear vinaigrette?), and chose three cooked starters, which we shared. We loved the three fat, pillowy griddlecakes, made from Yellow Finn potatoes and masa harina, woven through with strands of poblano chilies, scallions, and melty shreds of St. George cheddar and smoked cheese, plated with a fresh roasted tomato salsa and crème fraîche. I was equally beguiled by the Indian sampler, a raita of crisp Kirby cucumber slices in yogurt; a basmati rice salad full of chickpeas, currants, and cashews; stewed red lentil dal; a pot of spicy tomato jam; and three triangles of grilled pita -- lots of complementary flavors. There was nothing wrong with the grilled porcini mushroom salad with arugula, shaved parmigiano-reggiano, and an olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar dressing; it just seemed like a classic dish that we could have had at many other places, whereas the other two dishes had the imprint of Greens and nowhere else. (I noted that the pleasant service no longer smacked of Zen servility, though I wondered why, here as elsewhere, affable waitpersons felt the need to answer "No problem" to everything we requested.)

As often happens, I preferred our first courses to the entrees, though they were very good indeed, especially the phyllo pastry layered with a well-balanced blend of chopped savoy spinach, rainbow chard, walnuts, feta, ricotta, onions, and rosemary, and served with toothy braised French lentils and grilled young artichokes with mint and lemon oil. It was almost ethereal, yet satisfying. We also got something very like the dish I remember from my first meal here so long ago, the hearty Zuni stew, with butternut squash, turnips, red carrots, peppers, pearl onions, celery root, broccoli, an array of beans (black, pinto, and rattlesnake), tomatoes, ancho and chipotle chilies, and cilantro, served with tender corn bread and poblano chili butter. Our third choice was also a Greens stalwart, brochettes of mushrooms, peppers, yams, fennel, red onions, Yellow Finn potatoes, zucchini, cherry tomatoes, and marinated tofu, saved from banality by the excellence of the vegetables, the faint whiff of smokiness imparted by the mesquite grill, and a Moroccan charmoula sauce heady with garlic and cumin, equally tasty with the vegetables and their accompaniment of couscous topped with slivered almonds and dried cherries.

The desserts were superb. I had achieved my father's criterion for the perfect restaurant meal, in which you like every dish on the table but think that your own choice is the best. I was delighted with Chi-hui's firm banana steamed pudding, full of chopped dates and served with a silky butterscotch sauce and a cloud of crème fraîche infused with vanilla, and Bernice's quince tarte Tatin, the blushing pink fruit prettily sided with snowy crème fraîche ice cream. But I was astonished by my juicy, delicious pear pumpkin upside-down cake topped with pecan streusel and set in a syrup full of poached cherries, the only dessert asterisked as vegan. Debbie Hughes, the pastry chef who achieved such a tender crumb without eggs or dairy, was to be congratulated.

We left the table replete yet refreshed. If Greens can turn out such delightful dishes in the winter, I thought, I must return, both for health and for pleasure, in the spring, when the full panoply of vegetables begins to appear from the Zen Center's Green Gulch organic farm in Marin, and in the summer, when farmers' markets overflow. I long for another corn pudding.

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Meredith Brody

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