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Millennium Approaches 

Our critic tries the vegan way, with mixed results

Wednesday, Aug 27 2003
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Let's get this out of the way straight off: I've always been happy with my position in the food chain. I hasten to point out that this position is not necessarily at the top, so I try to avoid situations where I might run across a beast who is equally content with his dietary options, which could include me.

I don't try to impose my dietary beliefs on those around me -- with the exception of a slight, involuntary eye-rolling at avowals I sense are more fashionable than medically warranted, of lactose intolerance or wheat allergies or the like. (Yes, there are people who are lactose intolerant and allergic to wheat and tons of other stuff, too, but I'm wary of those who self-diagnose after reading an article in Vogue.) I think you can eschew any part of your diet, for moral reasons, health reasons, even just for the hell of it. (I don't quite understand why followers of restricted diets often seem imbued with feelings of superiority to those around them. But there it is.) I have friends with the wackiest, most complicated requirements who somehow always find something they can order and enjoy wherever I take them to eat. And then there's my beloved goddaughter Anna, who claims to eat everything except red meat and who once perused a menu of some 200 items in a venerable Parisian brasserie and allowed as how there were two dishes on it she could eat: a salad with goat cheese and the club sandwich, hold the bacon.

But I digress. I'm fencing around, defensively, because I had a couple of uneven meals at Millennium, a vegan (no meat, no dairy) restaurant whose menu states, "We believe that a gourmet dining experience can be created out of vegetarian, healthy, and environmentally friendly foods."

I'm with them there. I'm not nuts about the word "gourmet" (nor am I as nuts about nuts as the chefs at Millennium, where they show up – to provide protein and fat as well as a satisfying crunch, I know – a little more frequently than absolutely necessary. But I digress, again). I've had the kind of meals they're talking about; I'm thinking of dining at Greens, or weekends on Long Island with Jeff and John when we've just returned from a successful foray to the local farm stands, or similar repasts thrown together after visiting a farmer's market.

And I'm pleased when I read, "Most importantly, we are dedicated to providing a deliciously memorable dining experience for every guest who walks through our doors." This evening that would include me, the unregenerate carnivore, and my guests John and Diane, who I think are vegetarians. After I let the host know that I am not happy with the first table we're led to (it sits at the corner of the open kitchen, and is hot and noisy), he returns and offers us a nicer, cooler one, close to the long bar that's contiguous with the kitchen. The room, which once housed a Parisian brasserie before Millennium moved here from its previous digs in another hotel, still boasts dark-wood paneling and tables, but has been somewhat lightened with fabric hangings and fabric-swathed light fixtures. When we peruse the menu, it turns out that Diane avoids only red meat, while John will go as far as fish.

We choose, from among half a dozen salads and nine small plates and starters, a complicated salad for Diane, a complicated cold soup for John, and a relatively simple dish of "smoky Southwestern pinto beans" for me. The menu descriptions are the type that list every ingredient, which in some cases is more confounding than helpful. What, I wonder, are the "carrot and burdock kimpira" and "kejap manis" that come with the sesame-crusted oyster mushrooms? The wasabi crème part of the dish I can figure out.

Diane's warm king trumpet and honshimeji mushroom spinach salad, with sweet corn, sautéed red onion, smoked tofu, and a sweetish sesame-sake vinaigrette, is large and made with good ingredients. I might prefer it with a couple fewer of them (I find it a trifle ongepotchket, a nice Yiddishism implying "everything including the kitchen sink"), but it's delightful. John's chilled Indian spiced tomato and coconut soup -- carefully poured around a timbale of avocado, cucumber, marinated portobello mushrooms, currants, and chile, with additional garnishes of cherry tomatoes, basil, and cardamom-toasted cashews (one of the two raw dishes on the menu, for those vegans who take it yet another step further) -- is refreshing, revealing a new array of interesting flavors with every spoonful. (I don't quite get the currants, and I might have liked it even more without the mushrooms, but that's a question of taste.) My beans could use more avocado than the two thin slices they boast, the masa cake is not especially crisp, as advertised, and a dab of the forbidden sour cream would improve things no end, but what really takes me aback is the price: $6.95 for a small ramekin whose ingredients are worth perhaps 75 cents in a bull market?

I like our starters well enough, but the main courses leave me feeling desperate. I just don't enjoy anything we order. The dishes aren't just ongepotchket; to me they're inexplicable. John's curry ("seared purple rice cake with sauté of Asian vegetables, oyster mushrooms, smoked tofu, Thai lemongrass coconut curry, spicy grilled nectarine sambal, sprout and mint salad") comes the closest to providing pleasure, but I still find it muddy, confused, not particularly -- what did they say? -- delicious or memorable. Everything on Diane's plate, featuring roasted smoked tempeh in a blackberry barbecue sauce, roasted garlic soft polenta, and corn and summer squash hash, is soft and sweet and mushy (except for the toasted pecans). I actively dislike my seitan and tempeh medallions, with a Marsala mushroom sauce: I think of sponges and wet bread. The mashed potatoes are fine, especially considering that they're made without the aid of cream or butter, but the "seasonal roasted vegetables" (turnips, mostly, which seem more like fall than summer) are underdone, and, oddly, the long stringy roots are untrimmed (is this to add a rustic touch?).

The only dish I would happily order again is my cute little dollhouse cherry pie, made with fresh cherries and boasting a good crust and a ball of excellent coconut sorbet. John's blueberry sorbet is absolutely tasteless, adorned with four fresh blueberries and an inexplicable dollop of something called "cashew crème." The white chocolate mousse that is part of the peach white chocolate layer cake has a clayey texture worthy of a supermarket cake.

I am sorry that I've fed my friends a dispiriting meal, and I put off returning to Millennium. But it turns out that Robert, who has fond memories of meals in its previous location, is not only willing but eager to try the place again.

This time I order defensively, and I must say we have a much better meal. A much, much better meal, I confess with some relief, not just because of the tender feelings of Millennium's obviously hardworking kitchen, but also because of our own tender taste buds. We start with two salads: stone fruits (sliced peaches, nectarines, plums) alongside greens with garnishes of radish, red onion, almonds, and a nectarine and ginger vinaigrette; and heirloom tomato and avocado next to baby lettuces with caramelized garlic, capers, basil, and cashews. Good salads, although not all of the tomatoes are dead ripe, and they should be, and once again I think losing the garlic and the capers wouldn't hurt. We like the little plate of "seasonal pickles" (radish and cucumber).

Robert is very happy with his pepita-crusted portobello, thick chunks of the big, meaty mushroom piled up on a bed of tomatillo salsa verde, roasted huckleberry, Yellow Finn and purple potatoes (I see only yellow ones, but they are well-roasted and creamy-textured), some crunchy red-cabbage salad, and streaks of an ancho-lime aioli that tastes mostly of the chile. "I'd come back here for this," he says.

The same aioli comes dribbled around my plantain torte, a wedge of tortilla filled with mashed plantains and tofu (which I find unpleasantly gummy). I can't say I am thrilled with the huge, heavily fried "stout batter fried squash blossoms," either, stuffed with ancho custard that isn't very custardy. That adjective "stout" should have tipped me off; I usually think of fried squash blossoms as an ethereal dish. These are stolid.

Still, I am miles happier than when I'd been chewing tempeh and seitan a few weeks before. We enjoy the dry Spanish muscat (a 2001 Sumarroca), giggling only a little when we read that it was made from "grapes harvested at night."

And the desserts are perfect. Or almost perfect -- Robert rejects the undercooked walnut phyllo cigars ("And this is one of my favorite things!") that accompany his nectarine sorbet with nectarines sautéed in ginger syrup, and wonders a little at the sticky "caramel" underneath, but I love my fig galette, with its tender cornmeal crust, corn and coconut sorbet, and thick slices of fig nicely glazed with crackling sugar.

If I were a vegan, I think I'd appreciate Millennium, which is trying to give vegans the full-on fine-dining experience, more than I do eating there as my omnivorous self. There's no more perfect dish than a plate of ripe sliced tomatoes in a good oily vinaigrette, and I could see following that with a bowl of rice or soba noodles topped with olive oil, fresh vegetables, and garlic. But such simplicity seems quite beyond Millennium.

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Meredith Brody

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