Where's the Beef?

There was a floppy-eared dog sitting outside Valentine's when I visited one chilly evening. We stared at one another quizzically, and for a moment I wondered if he might be the same hound whose visage adorns the restaurant's bright yellow awning. He wasn't, the maitre d' assured me; the dog on the awning is Valentine, the owners' pet schnauzer.

The fact that the owners of a restaurant named the place after their dog and use his likeness as part of their public identity suggests something about their view of animals — among other things, that people shouldn't be eating them. It's a complex issue with ethical and biological and sentimental dimensions, and it's not hard to be of two minds about it, as I am. Still, meat, poultry, and seafood are generally wonderful, and contemplating the world of food without them is like being unable to see one of the primary colors.

If more vegetarian food were as dazzlingly good as Valentine's, surrendering one's carnivorousness might be an easier assignment. The food isn't just good vegetarian food; it's good by any standard. It blows the doors off that venerable vegetarian temple, Greens, whose glory now resides almost entirely in the cookbooks its chefs have written. Greens is a memory with a great bridge view; Valentine's is here and now, with a modest view of the J Church streetcar turning the corner at 30th Street, and a new wave of enthusiasm and ingenuity for cooking without animal flesh.

One simple technique the kitchen uses to great effect is spicing and seasoning generously. The menu borrows from a variety of cultures, but strongly represented are Indian, Italian, Middle Eastern, and Thai — all of which have distinctive signature flavors.

Samosa, for example ($3.50), featured chunks of curry-spiced potato inside lightly deep-fried pastry pockets. A ramekin of spicy-sweet, aromatic mint chutney accompanied the dish, almost as if to apologize for the starch-within-starch of the samosa. In fact the texture of the potatoes differed from the pastry (which was delicate and flaky), and the flavor of curry was sharp but not overpowering. The mint chutney was lovely, and its deep green color made a welcome addition to the plate, but the samosa would have tasted fine without it.

The “chorizo” quesadilla ($3.95) included a tortilla of unearthly bright green: “Spinach” was how the waitress accounted for the extraordinary color. The tortilla was huge; folded over the melted jack cheese within, it looked like half a pizza that had been forgotten in the refrigerator. The cheese had a cheddarlike pungency, and the garnish, of tomatoes and roasted chiles, murmured of heat like a panther softly growling in its cage.

Several months ago I criticized another restaurant for stuffing its vegetarian egg rolls with noodles, mushrooms, and tofu — a battery of bland ingredients in search of a defining taste. Valentine's offers potstickers ($3.95), which are filled with glass noodles and wild mushrooms and — the key difference — sun-dried tomatoes. Their meatiness takes the place of the ground pork or shrimp in ordinary potstickers and gives a real vividness to what would otherwise be shy background flavors. The garlic-soy dipping sauce was a little too salty for me, but besides the garlic it seemed also to include a bit of cayenne or chile flakes, which added piquancy and cut the salt a bit.

Main courses arrived hot but not scorching. (Valentine's is quite small, and the kitchen is at the back of the dining room, convenient for the waitstaff if not for the chefs.) The canneloni ($7.95) consisted of spinach, ricotta cheese, and pesto rolled in a buckwheat crepe, topped with a smoky-sweet roasted tomato sauce. The pesto's flavor, usually so assertive, was barely detectable, but the spinach and ricotta merged into a satisfyingly gooey mass that did not suffer from lack of meat. And, like everything else we were served, the dish was adequately salted, its flavors fully developed by the time it reached the table.

The roasted vegetables and crisp-fried tofu ($7.95) is the sort of dish I let other people order. Tofu, to me, is a depressing, damp block of white at the supermarket. But the kitchen at Valentine's works a minor miracle with the stuff. They marinate it, give it shrimplike shape, dip it in batter, and deep-fry it — the result is something very much like shellfish, tasty and chewy though not rubbery.

The rest of the dish was like the Thai soup tom ka gai — coconut milk and lemongrass, some fairly mild red curry — recast as a pasta sauce. The vegetables included red bell pepper, eggplant, and roasted chiles with just a bit of zing. Basil added color and a whiff of fresh spiciness, while the bed of linguinelike noodles nicely absorbed the sauce. (My friend did find this dish slightly undersalted — it was the only time during the entire dinner that we laid a hand on the salt shaker.)

I'm a practicing chocolate addict, and for years I've invariably chosen the chocolate dessert from whatever choices appeared on the dessert menu. But maybe there is wisdom, after all, in the European habit of going easy on the after-meal sweets. There was a tempting item listed — Valentine's chocolate fantasy ($3.95), a chocolate-hazelnut truffle torte with mocha frosting and wildberry sauce — but I took a deep breath and didn't order it. My friend did, and we found it rich but a little dry.

The housemade melon sorbet ($3.75), on the other hand, was sublime. It reached the table as a single scoop that looked like a snowball, but its cantaloupe taste was too fine and pure to have been commercially made. (Mass-produced sorbets are sweet and syrupy, like a soft drink that's been frozen.) It was also — no small consideration — low calorie and no fat.

As we left, the floppy-eared dog was wagging his tail excitedly as his owners, standing in the door, told the maitre d' that they'd just had the best vegetarian meal ever.

“I hope you enjoyed your meal,” the maitre d' said to me.
The dog looked at me again, tail still wagging. Do you know where Valentine is? he seemed to be asking.

“Yes,” I said.
Valentine's, 1793 Church, S.F., 285-2257; Wed-Fri 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Wed-Thurs 5:30-9:30 p.m.; Fri 5:30-10 p.m.; Sat-Sun 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m. & 6-10 p.m.

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