Talk about picky guests! A few winters ago, I invited a couple of friends to a roast beef feed -- with Yorkshire pudding baked in the drippings, buttery mashed potatoes, root vegetables braised in chicken stock, and, for dessert, a creamy citrus mousse. Minutes before the roast was done, our guests arrived, toting a shopping bag that bore no bouquet for the hostess, merely a great heap of greenery. "Hi, we've become vegetarians," the couple piped up. "We switched last week. We're pretty strict, so we brought some things to eat. Can we use your wok?"
Our "strict" friends had in fact turned vegan, eschewing dairy products and eggs as well as any protein without cell walls. To them, even the mousse was taboo, having included gelatin. (As the old racetrack rhyme goes, "Roses are red/ Pansies are yellow/ Horses that lose are made into jello.") We've managed to remain friends anyway (now I invite them for eggplant vindaloo), but restaurants can be a problem. Chinese chefs may sprinkle chicken stock on the veggies, Southeast Asians season with fish sauce, Latins may use lard, and even Indian curries can conceal yogurt. We were pleased to discover Millennium, where vegans and omnivores can feast fancily together, or apart.
Well-located near the opera and symphony, Millennium serves light meat-free fare that's unlikely to inspire such dissonant arias as "La Donna e Mobi ... zzzzz." The challenge its kitchen confronts is that of creating an ambitious new cuisine within stringent limits. A few dishes are cheese-optional, but no creature features are used in the cooking. The setting is casually elegant, an attractive, quiet room on the substreet level of the Abigail Hotel. The many windows (facing an off-street courtyard) create an open feeling, and a window-wall at one end looks out at a tiny urban garden. Well-spaced tables, low ceilings coated with textured sound-absorbent material, soft banquettes, and curtain swags conspire to keep dinner talk local, not global.
At our first meal, TJ and I ordered for pleasure -- just a couple of omnivores looking for a good time. Our friendly, observant waitress knew all the dishes well enough to describe them accurately, and the versatile beverage list proved reasonably priced: A glass of organic Bonterra chardonnay ($5.50) had delicious oaky-vanilla undertones, TJ found a good pilsener, and our house-made lemonade ($3.50) was fine.
Dinner began with peasant bread served with a pleasant, mayonnaisoid herbed dip, made from silken tofu and cashews. A warm spinach salad ($6.25) was dressed with tart balsamic vinegar mellowed by a very mild olive oil. The barely wilted organic greens were topped with cremini mushrooms, red onions, and smoked tofu fingers (tasting like smoked Cheddar) that were crisped outside, soft inside. The optional walnuts were fresh-tasting and freshly toasted. "This measures up to my highest expectations," said TJ with relief, remembering the greasy spinach salads made by his Southern-born ex-in-laws. A room-temperature vegetable antipasto ($6.25) included perfectly grilled slices of Japanese eggplant, red peppers, and red onion, grilled-tomato salsa, al dente rice, and several varied bean hills -- including whole hominy, which in context seemed exotic. Alongside were toast croutons topped with spicy, full-flavored hummus. "I don't know why more Italian restaurants on this coast don't serve vegetable antipasti," I said. "True, this is better than the usual bunch of baloney," said TJ, unconvinced. "But the olive oil they use here is so light, it has no olive taste. I'm not getting the fulfillment I want."
We were tempted by several entrees -- potato and mushroom salad, tomatoes on a cornmeal gallette, and especially an "Asian Style Napoleon" ($15.95) of sesame phyllo layered with mushrooms and asparagus -- but we finally succumbed to the day's pasta special ($10.95), cavatappi with fresh pineapple-basil salsa. We agreed that cavatappi is the best pasta shape we've run into in a long time -- the thick, striated macaroni corkscrews had a great texture, really held the piquant sauce, and unified the topping of sauteed eggplant, baby bok choy, cut long beans, red pepper, and onion. It was quite fulfilling. A "Moroccan Pastry Pouch" ($14.95) brought a crisp phyllolike shell in the shape of a chimichanga, well-stuffed with mushrooms, eggplant, almonds, basmati rice, and tempeh -- this last being fermented tofu, which the chef mixes with crunchy rice to give it texture. The sauce was a tart golden tomato coulis spiked with cardamom, and the composition included sweet grilled figs and crisp asparagus spears.
Having chosen our dishes purely for enjoyment, we ate heartily and didn't miss animal protein (although in truth, an hour later we were hungry again). For our second meal, though, driven by curiosity and critical duty, we determined to go hard-core. Many vegans, long divorced from their last hamburgers, apparently enjoy "imitation meat" -- for example, tempeh and seitan. We wondered whether the fakes would be palatable to diners free from chronic cravings for forbidden flesh.
We began (for a treat) with plantain torte ($7.50), a charming pie wedge of mashed plantains spread between crusts of tortilla, served over a tangy, slightly spicy sauce of pureed papaya and tomato. We were less amused by the grilled smoked portobello mushrooms ($7.25), which had so heavy and familiar a hickory flavor we suspected a baste of Liquid Smoke rather than a turn over a wood fire. The mushrooms' "sweet Moroccan dressing" was dominated by a heap of very sour red onions turned crimson by a dark, pungent pickling liquid. Croutons with spicy hummus lent relief.
We chose two entrees based on imitation meats. "Indonesian Tamarind Tempeh" ($13.50) was a crusty, cumin-coated wedge of that fermented soy and rice mixture, layered with red onions and served atop a sour coral sauce of lime, tamarind, and peanuts. Tasting more like fake nuts than fake meat, tempeh had played its minor role well in the Moroccan chimichanga, but as a soloist it was nothing we'd want again. We did enjoy the accompanying crisp bean sprouts and chewy, saffron-tinged rice. Our second entree was the hardest-core fake meat of all, the "Millennium Steak" ($14.50), made from seitan, or wheat gluten. If you've tried Chinese vegetarian food, you may have encountered seitan under the name "vegetable goose." In this dish, it's sliced into medallions, pan-fried, and topped with a red-brown mushroom marsala sauce. We thought it tasted like a TV dinner Salisbury steak. But unlike Banquet's, the sauce was acrid and the "meat" even mushier, but you get the idea. The more we ate, the less we liked it. On our fourth (and final) nibble, we decided that "Salisbury steak" was too good for it -- the black-red gluten actually had the look and texture of raw liver genetically crossed with okra. "Get thee behind me, seitan," I whispered. Alongside were lightly garlicked mashed potatoes, succulent even without butter and milk, and another heap of the pickled red onions we'd had with the portobello appetizer. By now, we were seriously OD'd on this dinner's acidic sauces and garnishes.
"I'll never be a vegan," TJ decided. "They have to go to extremes to make these counterfeits strong-flavored enough to compensate for their basic blandness, and it gets boring and overwhelming. If I want to eat vegetables, I'd rather eat at the Ganges [the Indian restaurant near UCSF], where they're cooking traditionally and not trying to be clever."
Both nights, though, our desserts were sweet and lovable. The first dinner, we chose the most unique of several sorbets ($3.50) -- one made from pineapple, pineapple sage, and macadamia nuts. The flavor was fascinating and complex (and I'm still tickled to have found some use for pineapple sage besides luring hummingbirds to the garden). My espresso was a little thin, but TJ's "hot chocolate chai" ($2.75), Indian-style spiced tea mixed with chocolate and a touch of optional milk, was redolent with the unmistakable flavor of Saigon cinnamon, a powerful, long-lost taste from our childhoods. (Saigon cinnamon has just become available in the United States again, with the end of the 20-year embargo on Vietnamese products.) After the second dinner, we rewarded ourselves with the restaurant's signature dessert, "Chocolate Almond Midnight" ($6), a wedge of rich chocolate mousse topped with a scattering of candied almond slices and fresh (but underripe) raspberries. We were amazed to learn that the "cream" in the mousse is pureed silken tofu.
At Millennium, with a menu offering so many enticing choices -- potatoes, pastas, polenta, and all manner of multinational veggie pies and wraps -- there's no reason to suffer with fake meat if you don't want to. The predominance of sour sauces is a different problem: It's not because the food is vegan, but because the dinner chef obviously loves tartness. With careful choices, though, at Millennium you can get fine, varied, serious cooking in an agreeable setting, and you don't even have to be vegan to enjoy it.