In more easygoing times, we adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding the omnipresent fish sauce in Thai restaurants. Now that we are more rigorous in our avoidance of animal products—and consequently do ask—we’ve had the experience of Thai dishes stripped not only of fish sauce (and oyster sauce, too) but also of flavor. Thai Vegan on Main Street in Santa Monica brilliantly solves the flavor problem but is not an entirely nice place to eat (table cleanups are DIY, and the parking-lot bathroom is best reserved for emergencies). Satdha (2218 Lincoln Blvd.) offers an appealing alternative, a bright, clean space, with an all-vegan menu full of color, crispiness, creaminess, and punch—and it happens to be a walkable, though uphill, hike from Main Street. We loved both the yellow and green curries: the former with fried tofu, carrots, potatoes, and onions; the latter with chickpeas, baby bamboo shoots, eggplant, bell pepper, and green beans. We were also impressed by the “catfish” eggplant, battered with rice and wheat flour, fried, and soaked in a red curry paste—clearly a customer favorite. But we found ourselves scarfing with particular relish the vermicelli with curry sauce, a toss-your-own platter of rice noodles, beans sprouts, chopped green beans, and pickled mustard greens. After three visits, we can now recommend Satdha without reservation. Will we be going back again soon? You hardly need to ask.
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.