The food, like the layout, is attractively unconventional, proof of how far vegetarian cooking has come in the past few years. Many serious food people I know are sympathetic toward vegetarianism, a goal we like to think of ourselves as drifting toward though not really wanting to reach. Cooking without meat, poultry, and seafood -- and, in the case of veganism, without animal products of any kind, including cream and butter -- is something like trying to write without using certain letters, or play music without certain notes. It can be done, and done brilliantly, but making up those losses requires, in the short run, ingenuity, and over the longer term some indescribable gift.
As if simple veganism weren't enough of a challenge, Joubert's describes its menu as "a taste of South Africa" -- which to most people will mean either nothing or something ponderously Dutch. (Dutch food, with all its butter and cream, is the virtual opposite of vegan food.) In fact the cuisine of South Africa strongly reflects the influences of France (whose Huguenot settlers visited the region in the 1700s) and India and East Asia (from which slaves used to be imported to the area). In Joubert's version, it's vividly spiced food that makes heavy use of lentils, peas, and beans.
The true test of vegetarian food must be its appeal to carnivores. Do they leave the restaurant sated, or are they already talking about McDonald's as they make their way out? On this point our reaction to Joubert's was mixed: Although the food was consistently well-prepared, flavorful, generously portioned, and artfully presented, I for one began to notice the lack of heft -- of cheese, for example, a staple at such non-vegan places as Valentine's and Greens, while at Joubert's a player only in the macaroni and cheese. (Joubert's menu is predominantly but not dogmatically vegan; it is totally vegetarian.)
But then, I'm not politically or morally committed to veganism or even vegetarianism; I agree with Julia Child that the best cooking -- true epicureanism -- makes use of the full range of the agricultural bounty available. I even buy veal at the market, because there's nothing quite like it.
One of Joubert's many graces is the fixed-price dinner for $14.95: soup, main course, side dish, and whole-wheat roll. The discount on fixed-price meals is always attractive, and because we were hungry omnivores we were also drawn by the promise of lots of food and the hope of being satisfied by sheer bulk if not meat.
Both soups were excellent, neither needing salt. The milder of the two was a green split-pea soup; the other, Boere-Malay brown lentil, burned with the distinctive fire of curry. (The chef, we were told, blends his own garam masala. If so, he should sell it, because it's gorgeously complex and balanced.)
The curry reappeared in the British-Indian ragout, a half-portion of which made up the entree of the day. The other half was a black-eyed-bean cassoulet that might well have been tasty but was no match for the ragout's curry. The ragout was studded with chunks of carrot, celery, zucchini, potatoes, and, most strikingly, whole cardamom pods that had been stewed to a fragrant chewiness; they tasted something like unsweetened spearmint gum, and their strong perfume rose through the nose. On the side were three triangles of garlicky polenta scattered with diced tomatoes.
The macaroni and cheese had been scented with mushrooms, whose earthiness gave the dish a dark, mouth-filling glow. The pasta was substantial enough to stand up to the ragout, as the cassoulet had not been; a dribbling of cilantro-yogurt raita also helped cool the ragout's powerful curry.
After a late, heavy lunch, a vegan dinner was refreshingly light, but a few evenings later I was hungry and craving something substantial. So was the Mystery Writer, who went for the grilled portobello mushroom steak (lured, perhaps, by the word "steak"). The simply grilled portobello did take on a nice meaty texture (is a big grilled mushroom like a methadone fix for people trying to break the meat habit?), but it was the polenta he liked most -- moist, almost like slices of savory cake.
The boerewors patties reminded me of falafel. Although they were a little tough, they were flavorful -- so much so that I wished there'd been more of them instead of the two sand-dollar-size discs I was served. A carrot-tomato chutney (liberally laced with cayenne, as our attentive server had warned) added some welcome spice to the plate.
The only real weakness on the menu was dessert. Mango kulfi ($1.95), a kind of frappe, was icy, like half-melted ice cream that had been refrozen. It was served so cold that it had no flavor, and we let it sit there, hoping the server would clear it. (Service generally was attentive and swift, though a little slow that evening: A major review of the restaurant had appeared and spiked business.) Meanwhile it melted and softened and vastly improved.
The British-Indian rice pudding ($1.95) reached the table piping hot. The rice had good al dente texture, and the pudding was densely studded with raisins, but despite the heavy cream it seemed a little too virtuous to be a real dessert. The chocolate cake, on the other hand ($3.95 for a mammoth slice) was everything a chocolate cake -- and a dessert -- should be: rich, fattening, intense with chocolate. It brought the meal to a momentous close, and it proved that Joubert's can wallow in decadence with the best of them.
I left Joubert's deeply impressed -- and longing for a plate of veal scaloppine. The kitchen worked up a lovely symphony within its self-imposed limitations, but in the end the limitations didn't make sense to me: too many notes and nuances missing. But the notes that did sound were beautiful and memorable.
Joubert's, at 4115 Judah in S.F., serves dinner Wednesday through Sunday from 6 to 10 p.m.; call 753-5448.