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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.