R+D Kitchen

Rice patty: A barely-there veggie burger

Rice patty: A barely-there veggie burger

Frites street: R+D's cup of fries

Frites street: R+D’s cup of fries

If you are beautiful, rich, and famous or at least want a side of glamour with your seared ahi tuna salad, you might consider R+D Kitchen, a chic eatery on Santa Monica’s boutique-y Montana Avenue (1323 Montana Ave., near Euclid). Though from the sidewalk the atmosphere appears to be one of overflowing bustle (no reservations are taken), those who manage to snag a table may well feel a sense of comfort and serenity. The winsome waitstaff, crisply attired in white uniforms, are as friendly as they are attractive, like the idealistic young doctors of a TV drama. Some actual celebrities may be glimpsed here as well, since the restaurant, just across the street from the Aero Cinematheque, provides convenient grub for the nonprofit’s special guests. Vegetarians will not find many choices, however. Putting aside the spinach and cheese omelet and a few ordinary side dishes, one is left with the unprepossessing house-made veggie burger. Formed from brown rice, mushrooms, carrots, and almonds, the patty is slightly sweet, not dry but not crisp either, with sporadic crunchiness from the nuts. Like the patty itself, the condiments lean toward the mild: melted jack cheese, avocado, mayo, and tomato slices, with a heap of fresh arugula and a bit of red onion, all on a buttery, soft roll that felt heavier than it needed to be. (The fries, prepared in the style of pommes frites, are tasty enough.) Though vegetarians may justifiably visit R+D Kitchen for the scene, they’re unlikely to return for the food. But, as the ever-present crowds attest, that’s probably beside the point.


The Yard

The corn is green: Cobs with green garlic butter

Corn is green: Cobs with green garlic butter

Two great tastes: Burrata and peach

Two great tastes: Burrata and peach

Warm hummus with grilled bread

Garlicky: Warm hummus with grilled bread

Arancini with Romesco sauce

Nutty: Arancini with Romesco sauce

Chocolate cake with peanut butter ganache, charred marshmallow and pretzel ice cream

Incongruous harmony: Chocolate cake with peanut butter ganache, charred marshmallow and pretzel ice cream

Identifying itself as a gastropub, the Yard (119 Broadway, near 2nd St. in Santa Monica) has nothing for vegetarians among its entrées, but with an assortment of small plates and appetizers, non-meat-eaters can assemble their own mini tasting menu of Top Chef contestant C.J. Jacobson’s carefully and creatively prepared dishes. We ordered the gently grilled corn on the cob, tender, sweet, juicy, and rolled in a buttery garlic sauce, with Irish coolea cheese and a dash of paprika; a combination of sweet (albeit slightly mushy) peach slices and creamy, pleasantly salty burrata; smooth, garlicky warm hummus, with roasted red pepper, sweet cherry tomatoes, parsley, and slices of crusty bread; and, the heaviest of our small plates, arancini, a reinvention of the Sicilian dish as crispy, golden balls with a creamy, cheesy risotto core and a Romesco sauce that had a slight, nutty crunch under the bright tomato flavor. Part of Yard’s shtick is to put together apparently incongruous but actually harmonious elements, and we saw this strategy most clearly with our dessert, chocolate cake with peanut butter ganache, charred marshmallow, and pretzel ice cream. The marshmallows, it turned out, were not charred at all but slightly toasted to bring out caramel notes echoed in the ice cream and peanut butter, while the subtle deployment of pulverized pretzel added a touch of salty texture like fleur du sel sprinkled on a fine caramel ice cream. The cake itself was moist, with a deep chocolate flavor and not too much sugar; the peanut butter ganache luscious; and the ensemble simply delectable. Like every dish we ordered, it was a winning combo, even if sluggish service sometimes made our dinner seem like the longest yard.

Update: As reported in Grub Street, the Yard closed in January 2013, a year after chef Jacobson left.

M Street Kitchen

Top brassica: Brussels sprout salad (half portion)

Top brassica: Brussels sprout salad (half portion)

fixings for vegetarian tacos, with tortillas in foreground

Pain in the tacos: Tortillas, with fixings

Sweet and fudgy: The Magic Brownie

Fudgy and sweet: The Magic Brownie

Who has the best veggie burger? Back in June, the Los Angeles Times food section featured a reader’s letter describing the one at Upper West as “the best…on the planet.” Though we liked the burger a lot, we were hardly prepared to crown it with the world title (see June 16 review). The Shangri La Veggie-Nut Burger at M Street Kitchen (2000 Main Street, at Bicknell, in Santa Monica), however, seems at least to be a plausible contestant. Made from mushrooms, white beans, and onions, according to our waitress (we also tasted carrots and celery), the patty pulls off the textural coup of a crisp, brown outside paired with a moist, flavorful, non-mushy inside. Served on a toasted, buttery bun reminiscent of Upper West’s brioche, along with shredded lettuce, a slice of tomato, red onion, sweet pickle slices, and a sweet dressing, it made for an utterly scrumptious sandwich. (The accompanying coleslaw, a lightly dressed, slightly bland rendition, at least held on to a nice cabbagey crunch.) We were impressed, as well, by the brussels sprout salad, which elegantly combined the autumnal brassica, steamed, tamed of its bitterness, and broken down into individual leaves, with judicious slivers of mild, buttery Manchego cheese; almonds, for a nutty crunch; chewy dried cranberries and blueberries, for little, sweet bursts of fruit flavor; and a light, subtle honey-mustard vinaigrette. The vegetarian tacos were less remarkable: Though we liked the simplicity and wholesomeness of the white rice and black beans (albeit with a gratuitous spoonful of sour cream on top), as well as the bright, fresh guacamole and pico de gallo and the tangy, dark hot sauce, we were underwhelmed by the grilled veggies—red pepper, hot peppers, squash, and asparagus, which were apparently unseasoned as well as partially charred (for a burned flavor that we never really like). Moreover, the five small corn tortillas were not nearly enough to encompass the contents of the plate, which quickly devolved into a mess. For dessert, we chose the Magic Brownie, a generously sized chocolate square topped with chocolate sauce, with a dollop of whipped cream on the side. Though neither the brownie nor the cream was overpoweringly sweet, we would have preferred at least a hint of bitterness as a counterpoint to the sugar. We ended up cutting the rich, fudgy chewiness of the brownie with glasses of milk, which our waitress was kind enough to provide at our request (just as she had thoughtfully divided our brussels sprout salad into two plates). Though we would be inclined to avoid the tacos in the future, we would gladly return to M Street Kitchen for that memorable salad and the excellent veggie burger, both of which exhibit the extra portion of care that makes this stylish but friendly eatery extend its M to an mmmm.

Sauce on Hampton

Continuing our comparison shopping for veggie burgers, we visited Sauce on Hampton (259 Hampton Dr., on Rose, one block east of Main Street in Venice). As with Barney’s Gourmet Hamburgers (see June 13 review), the menu offers a variety of preparation options that correspond to the choices for the various meat patties; we chose Swiss cheese and sautéed mushrooms for one, grilled zucchini and avocado for the other. Both were served on a toasted but soft whole-grain roll with tomato, spinach, red onions, house-made aioli, and Dijon mustard, as well as a too-sweet Thousand Island-style dressing on the side. Sad to say, in both cases the unexceptional Gardenburger patty was so heavily charred on the grill that all the other flavors shrank into the background. The carrot-ginger soup, a seasonal special, was strangely bland, in desperate need of some salt. The roasted Yukon potatoes, at least, were delicious, golden on the outside and tender on the inside. More striking still was our appetizer, pizzadilla, a spinach flour tortilla baked to create the thinnest, lightest, crispest pizza crust we have ever had, one that still managed to maintain its chewiness. It was topped with a savory, slightly spicy layer of chimichurri, a green sauce made of chopped parsley, garlic, and chili flakes; sautéed mushrooms; Parmesan; and (invisible?) mozzarella (we’re going by the menu here). If only our burgers had lived up to that promising beginning. The dessert was another disappointment, a couple of insanely rich chocolate chip macadamia nut cookies sandwiching two scoops of lackluster vanilla ice cream, not difficult to finish but hardly worth the calories. The memorable pizzadilla left us thinking that, when he tries, the chef at Sauce can astonish, but for vegetarians this promising eatery is still a work in progress.

Coral Tree Cafe

Greens are good: Veggie burger, with salad

Greens are good: Veggie burger, with salad

Fruit of the shroom: Portobello sandwich

Fruit of the shroom: Portobello sandwich

Planning a healthy night at Cafe Rivva, an organic vegetarian eatery in Brentwood, we discovered that the kitchen had closed at 4. Fortunately, the nearby Coral Tree Cafe (11645 San Vicente Blvd., east of Barrington) provided us with an affordable and comfortable, though very likely more fattening, dinner. The experience was similar in many ways to our meal at Panera (see July 5 review) but with a much higher level of quality. We started with the vegan vegetable soup, a mixture of zucchini, onion, carrots, mushrooms, and barley with a bright, peppery flavor, not too sweet or salty, and not utterly dominated by the tomato base like similar versions we have had. Our sandwiches, a house-made veggie burger and a grilled portobello, both came with a simple but elegant salad, fresh mixed greens tossed with a sweet, acidic balsamic vinaigrette; the sandwiches themselves were served on good, toasty house-made ciabatta. The veggie burger, a fried patty made with peas, carrots, black beans, and onions, was golden brown on the outside, albeit dry and mushy on the inside, as house-made veggie burgers tend to be (see June 16 review of Upper West). It nonetheless had a decent flavor, oniony with a sweet undertone from the carrots and peas, and worked well with the accompanying sliced Roma tomatoes, lettuce, and mustardy rémoulade (wisely served on the side). The portobello sandwich was tastier, sporting roasted red peppers, spinach, caramelized onions, basil, and a moderate amount of smelly but flavorful Fontina cheese. Though full, we found room for the staff-recommended coconut cake, three yummy layers of coconut sponge, like a light, fluffy macaroon, frosted with coconut-sprinkled butter cream. In Los Angeles, sandwich-and-salad cafés with tempting desserts are ubiquitous, but it isn’t every day that one finds food like this done so well.

Veggie Grill

Could it be seitan? All-American Stack, with kale

Veganism for the masses: All-American Stack, with kale

Veganism for the masses: Carne asada sandwich, with red cabbage slaw

Could it be seitan? Carne asada sandwich, with red cabbage slaw

Chewy: Carrot cake with Tofutti frosting

Chewy: Carrot cake with Tofutti frosting

In the race to bring veganism to the masses, Veggie Grill may well have the leading edge. This rapidly expanding chain has managed the impressive feat of formulating an uncompromisingly dairy-, egg-, and meat-free menu that nonetheless packs them in day and night at our local branch (2025 Wilshire, at 20th St.). Even allowing for Santa Monica’s hypertrophic health consciousness, we are continually gratified by the size and diversity of the crowds, which range from the tattooed young to the most senior of citizens. What’s more, the testimony of friends and neighbors indicates that many of the customers are in fact meat eaters. But how is the food? If we put team loyalty aside, our candid assessment is that a number of items are delicious, particularly the sandwiches, though some of the side dishes, at least, could use more work. Tonight we ordered our favorite entrées, carne asada and the All-American Stack, both centered on strips of Veggie Grill’s proprietary meat substitute, a combination of proteins derived from soy, wheat, and peas. Though the fake meat does not entirely escape the stereotypical rubberiness, it comes close thanks to a deep, savory marinade. More important, the protein strips have a lot of help from the other ingredients. Indeed, the real triumph of the Veggie Grill sandwich is its meticulous layering of flavors. The carne asada, for example, employs a spiced vegan mayo; caramelized onions; raw red onion; lettuce; tomato; cilantro; and a salty, spicy relish of finely chopped carrots, all piled up on a soft whole wheat roll. The All-American Stack boasts thousand island dressing; sweet pickle slices; lettuce; tomato; the aforementioned relish; and, best of all, crisp fried onion rings. In addition to the chorus of flavors, a Veggie Grill sandwich offers the unexpected sensual pleasure of juicy messiness. (You may well need a stack of napkins.) Still, we fear that the same people who wolf down their sandwiches are liable to leave their ostentatiously healthy side dishes on their trays. The chili has an odd, harsh taste. The kale is merely steamed; the only flavors are pungent ginger and a dash of a salty sesame-based condiment. The sweet potato fries are fine, but be sure to ask for them without seasoning to avoid the weird, funky nutritional yeast with which they will otherwise be sprinkled. Finally, beware of the mac-and-cheese, which pairs a nutritional yeasty sauce with quinoa pasta, another alien dish from Planet Vegan. The desserts and some of the soups are better; we particularly like the carrot cake, a moist, chewy square with a sweet, creamy frosting made from margarine and Tofutti cream cheese. All in all, Veggie Grill promises a great leap forward for the vegan cause, and though we ourselves might prefer to be in Little Ethiopia mopping up a spicy lentil stew with injera, we’ll keep cheering it on.

Update: As of May 2014, Veggie Grill is up to 24 restaurants (16 in Southern California, the rest in Northern California, Oregon, and Washington State).

Upper West

Upper class: The celebrated veggie burger

Upper class: The celebrated veggie burger

Sweet and smoky: Roasted corn soup with black-bean falafel and sumac oil

Sweet and smoky: Roasted corn soup with black bean falafel and sumac oil

Berry good: Burrata with blackberries, tomato, and chopped green apple

Silky and buttery: Burrata with blackberries, tomato, and chopped green apple

The best donuts ever

Best on the planet? Chocolate cake doughnuts

Spurred by an L.A. Times reader’s description of the veggie burger as “the best…on the planet,” we hastened tonight to Upper West in Santa Monica (3321 Pico, near the 10). Although the claim turned out to be ludicrously hyperbolic, the burger was still pretty darned good, at least as a package. The patty by itself was rather bland and mushy, with a subtle smokiness as the only real flavor marker. However, every bite that included sliced avocado and pineapple relish was quite tasty, and the soft brioche bun enhanced the overall experience, as did the crisp, thin fries and the small, piquant pile of pickled carrots, onions, and peppers served on the side. We were more impressed by our appetizers, a slightly sweet, slightly smoky roasted corn soup with black bean falafel, and vegetable carpaccio, which brilliantly juxtaposed sweet beet slices with smoky “beluga” lentils, sweet cherry tomatoes, and capers (we could have done without the goat cheese). Surprisingly, the highlight of the meal was the set of five chocolate cake doughnuts, our judicious choice for dessert. These fried dough balls, reminiscent of Dunkin Donut Munchkins but taken to a whole other level, are filled with a luscious chocolate ganache and served in a paper bag full of cinnamon and sugar, together with a mind-blowing bittersweet chocolate-rum dipping sauce and, charmingly, a small glass of cold, sweet milk. If someone had claimed that these were the best on the planet, we might actually have believed it.

Update: On a second visit (August 2), we thought the veggie burger had gotten better; the patty itself now seemed to have a subtle curry taste, and it was topped with roasted red peppers as well as avocado, pineapple relish, and tomato aioli. Sadly, the vegetable carpaccio was unavailable tonight, but we were just as impressed by our replacement appetizer, a silky, buttery chunk of burrata atop a bed of panzanella, a bread crumb salad, made in this case with blackberries, chopped green apple, blistered tomatoes, fresh basil, and a light, tangy mustard-dill vinaigrette. We loved the roasted corn soup as much as before, and the doughnuts continue to thrill and astonish.