Greens Is the Zuni of Vegetarianism

Decades after she took over, and after the kitchen recovered from a fire, Annie Somerville’s vision feels vital.

Vegetarians in San Francisco share a common lament: that the Bay Area has a reputation for vegetarian- and vegan-friendliness, yet meat reigns. We’re long past the era when chefs’ scorn resulted in some steamed-broccoli alternatives, but for every Cha-Ya or Ananda Fuara, there’s something a little more culty-chainy. Even the superb and unique AL’s Place merely foregrounds plant-based cuisine with meat relegated to the periphery. The much-heralded entomophagy boomlet — that would be insect consumption — crested without leaving much of a mark beyond the occasional grasshopper taco, but shouldn’t the imminent destruction of the planet’s biosphere be spurring us to reduce more than our plastic-straw usage?

It’s been happening all along. For almost 35 years, Greens‘ chef Annie Somerville has introduced people to vegetarianism as less than an ascetic, morally purposeful way of life than a means of appreciating California’s bounty. But exactly six months ago, a fire erupted in Greens’ kitchen — mercifully leaving the dining room’s woodwork untouched. Described as small at the time, the blaze led to a four-month closure to bring the 1970s space up to code, with the restaurant — owned by the San Francisco Zen Center, in association with Green Gulch Farms — reopening only in mid-October. (The counter-service component, Greens to Go, remains closed until January.) Somerville, who took over from opening chef Deborah Madison in 1985, had been inching toward semi-retirement, but the project still feels like hers the way Zuni still feels like Judy Rodgers’ baby five years after her untimely death.

Indeed, Greens is basically the Zuni of meatlessness — something that’s all the more remarkable when you consider its bayfront views. With several prominent exceptions, it’s all too common for a restaurant with the Golden Gate Bridge in its sightlines to prioritize the romance of that over food. But the eye is drawn to the interior as much as to the waves and the water (and the frolicking sea lions who kept distracting my note-taking, because they always seem as though they’re looking right at you, with the sad sea-puppy eyes and the squee).

Unless it rests firmly within a particular national or regional cuisine, vegetarian cooking often succumbs to a more-is-more temptation, as if it’s on an ideological quest to win over avowed skeptics rather than give delight. Greens avoids this, particularly at brunch. By evening, dishes like the cauliflower-quinoa griddle cakes ($14.50) don’t come off as health patties next to a romesco sauce, but as a unified plate you assemble yourself, brightening it with Greek salad and crème fraîche. For sheer appetizing beauty, the polychromatic carrot hummus ($16) with several kinds of beets was clever and lovely, its za’atar oil looking like the magnified interior of a fig.

Wild mushroom and spinach filo ($28) was another hit, its combination of harissa, chickpeas, and carrots thoroughly Moroccan in flavor and earthy-rich enough to satiate the carnivorous. It’s not a tagine but served atop a tagine, so it feels like a bonus prize from the opposite end of the Mediterranean. The roasted brussels sprouts with a porcini crema were a slightly different matter, a little lacking in onion and sitting atop a cold bed of porcini crema, but the only true letdown was the forgettable gratin provencal ($28), whose joyless presentation reeked of a banquet hall or even an airplane flight — and by being a failure of imagination, it stuck out.

That’s dinner. Brunch is softer and lighter on its feet, less beholden to a repertoire of dishes, and also more shareable. Dinner at Greens is ideal for two; brunch would be best for four. Start with effervescent pomegranate margaritas ($14), perfect for the season, or just stay true to mimosa-land ($12). One of the very few times when you want something greasy and dense, the pupusas ($18.50) hide under soft-poached egg and stripes of red and green salsa, next to some pickled veggies, with a short stack of fried plantains — but the pupusas themselves are packed with peppers, zucchini, and pepitas, plus cheddar.

A $17 scramble feels like the same eggy thing you’d find on almost every brunch menu, except heaped high — and the tomatoes are exalted even in December: sweet and smoky-roasted and sharp all at once. Meanwhile, the Hodo Soy tofu hash ($18) splits the difference, coating the eggs in a pesto that’s made from lacinato kale and basil. And the three slices of somehow-better-than-brioche ciabatta French toast ($15) arrive with mascarpone, apple and cranberry sauces, plus a mini pitcher of B-grade maple syrup, the kind that feels like it was tapped straight from the Montpelier Municipal Syrup System. This is the way to seduce non-vegetarians away from the dark side, an evangel whispered in the ear. It’s easy being Greens.

Greens, 2 Marina Blvd., Fort Mason, Building A, 415-771-6222 or greensrestaurant.com

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