Just as streaming services have reinvigorated the cinematic “dump months” with lots of new releases, it is now possible to make January and February appear like prime pages of the dining-out calendar. On a menu page devoted to what’s “in season this January,” kabocha squash and hedgehog mushrooms not only share space with the usuals (citrus, greens, persimmons) but give them the pomp of a Star Wars opening crawl.
That menu belongs to Wildseed, the hyperlocal mega-chain Back of the House Inc.’s first plant-based restaurant. A replacement for the beery, convivial, Antwerp-heavy offerings at Belga, it became an immediate Cow Hollow institution, with crowds of people self-consciously jockeying in line well before 11 a.m. on weekends.
Compared to the word “vegan,” with its ideological-to-the-point-of-militancy overtones, the term “plant-based” feels almost provocatively neutral. It is a blank wall on which to hang whatever you like: guilt over the number of animals who’ve died for your dinners, an apocalyptic caution about humanity’s impending collision with the end of everything delicious, an optimistic reckoning with how meals can still be pleasurable after this era of unsustainable superabundance is over, or pseudo-scientific panic about vaguely defined toxins sapping our precious wellness. The only veg-adjacent thing it isn’t is an abstemious return to punitive 1970s crypto-foods like carob.
But you knew that. Overall, Wildseed feels like dining in the future (or Santa Monica). It undoubtedly benefits from the rise of Impossible Foods and Beyond Foods, but even more so from the democratization of fine dining’s decentering of meat, something chefs like Dominique Crenn have pursued over the last couple years. Only a few years ago, vegan restaurants crammed ingredients together in desperate-seeming attempts to appear less punitive, and the result was often less than the sum of its parts. Wildseed is chill and confident.
This is 2020, so there’s going to be cutesy propaganda for the #plantbasedlife somewhere on the wall. (It begins, “It’s sexy to eat plant-based.”) Still, Wildseed’s paeans to its own transferable awesomeness aren’t as smug as, say, Mixt’s, and the preachiness quotient is near zero. Chef Blair Warsham worked hard with nutritionist Alexandra Rothwell Kelly to sidestep aimless trend-grasping to create something more reassuring than experimental. There’s a reason Wildseed is on Union Street and not Divisadero, but it’s more for just the kombuch-oisie.
It’s got a killer brunch, too, including salads you might actually want to eat after a night out. A gorgeous carrot lox tartine — more Kantine than Tartine Bakery, to be sure — arrives with curls of carrot around little flavor-grenade cherry tomatoes on a dense brown bread spread with vegan bagel toppings. It looks like an orange eight-dot domino. That Just Egg and Beyond Sausage make a good omelet when you put enough mushrooms, kale, and tomato sauce on it is probably not surprising, although the companion potatoes were perfectly cooked. Apart from omelet’s orphaned toast, brunch’s only error was the profound stinginess of the apples on the Swedish-style pancakes.
For every fad like activated charcoal lemonade — an opaque and alluringly vile black, and ultra-sour besides — there are a number of creative, well-presented, and well-thought-out dishes like a beet poke with plenty of avocado and garlic-seaweed crackers that could almost be plant-based chicharrones, or a rigatoni bolognese that climbed to the summit of Mt. Heartiness and sneered at its fallen, meat-less competitors below. “I can do this plant-based thing!” you are meant to think, if you don’t already.
Wildseed has a number of things going for it, the first of which is the space itself. I remember feeling this way every time I walked into Belga, which had good flow even when it was packed. It may be one of San Francisco’s best laid-out restaurants, with a semi-private back room, well-separated seating sections, a generous communal table by the bar, and outdoor seats aplenty. Although the restrooms are a floor below, there’s even an elevator.
Second only to Beretta, Back of the House’s first — and, arguably, best-loved — endeavor, Wildseed recaptures the mood of why eating out is still preferable to ordering from UberEats. Lauren Fitzgerald’s cocktails do some heavy lifting there — particularly the Aquafaba Sour, whose legume water is shaken to a foam to a notch below a Ramos Gin Fizz, and the Earth Wood & Flower, which balances scotch and oloroso sherry with maple-y candy cap mushrooms.
Wildseed also continues the Back of the House tradition of putting restaurant over kitchen, by which I mean the well-oiled experience of dining there is what you’ll remember more than any one standout dish. If anything, mushrooms are this restaurant’s spinal column this winter, popping up in a ceviche, a donburi bowl, and elsewhere, here flirting with a textural resemblance to meat, there imparting everything around them with earthiness. Since entomophagy seems to have fizzled out as a scalable replacement for terrestrial meats, maybe we’ll all be eating fungi instead of ground-up crickets.
I keep coming back to that donburi bowl, something most people could reproduce a reasonable facsimile of at home. While I’d prefer we retire the prefix “super-” when talking about food (in this case, the grains) it’s comforting and attractive, something you’d want to be seen eating to hold yourself accountable to a wellness regimen. That’s not a snide criticism; it’s axiomatic that comfy denizens of the Global North need to scale back drastically if Homo sapiens is gonna make it. But while “Everything Laughing Together with Donburi” is better than “Women Laughing Alone with Salad,” I really wish Wildseed took greater pains to educate its patrons on the carbon-intensiveness of its dishes. What is the optimal winter dinner Warsham can make that doesn’t spew tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere? I am genuinely curious.
Adriano Paganini and his huge operation have slowed their rate of expansion considerably since 2016-17, when new concepts popped up on the regular. But the closure of Belga, which was an excellent restaurant — its fries are still on the menu, plant-based yet giddily unhealthy — shows a kill-your-darlings willingness to change. My prediction? Wildseed is a great idea that’s going to feel almost unbelievably ordinary five years from now.
2000 Union St., 415-872-7350 or wildseedsf.com