Golden Era

The Buddha smiles: miracle flavorings lead to vegan wonders at this classic SF spot
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Five-spice tofu delights
PHOTO BY RORY MCNAMARA

paulr@sfbg.com

DINE When you step into Golden Era, you pass through a narrow door and descend a few steps, as if into a subterranean world of disrepute. But you land on a landing, instead of at a bar crowded with sooty Mafia dons, as you might have expected, and from the landing you descend another brief staircase to the dining room, which opens out expansively around you. The experience is a little like the one long offered at Postrio, Wolfgang Puck's (now closed) restaurant near Union Square.

One difference is that while Postrio was very much about au courant glamour, Golden Era shimmers with a sense of lost glamour. The large dining room, with its high ceilings and wooden arches, is a little dowdy, but its bones are impressive. It's like a beaten-up pair of good shoes. Local lore teaches that the building was once a residence hotel run by Swedes and the spacious dining room a space for the serving of a Swedish menu. And I can't imagine a Swedish menu without meatballs.

You won't find meatballs on the menu at Golden Era — in fact, you won't find any meat at all, or dairy, since the restaurant is vegan. (Another huge difference from Postrio.) And you won't find anything Swedish. But you will find wonderful Southeast Asian cuisine, including many dishes that traditionally include meat, with vegan artifice substituting for flesh. As a rule I don't quite like this kind of vegetarian cooking — a "steak" concocted from a portobello mushroom or some such, often fails to convince. Menu cards that make liberal use of quote marks, as Golden Era's does, also raise a flag or two.

Despite the quote marks, the food is splendid. It compares favorably to that of Millennium, the fancier and pricier (and worthy) spot in the Hotel California. While a vegetarian or vegan kitchen might seem limited at first blush, with so many fundamental ingredients off-limits, the best such kitchens respond with verve and innovation. Because they can't rely on the innate impressiveness of a beautifully cooked steak or a fish roasted whole, they must redouble their attention to other details, like composition, color, and texture. This the Golden Era kitchen consistently does.

It would be hard to put together a dish that better demonstrates these attentions than crispy chow mein ($7.95), a bird's nest of crunchy noodles filled like a savory pie with a wealth of vegetables, including broccoli, carrot, bok choy, and mushrooms, all steamed to a slight tenderness while retaining their resiliency. The miracle flavoring was (we thought) mushroom soy sauce, slightly thickened and glossy, almost as if butter had been added — but butter is a vegan no-no, so how was the transformation accomplished? If by corn starch, then the hands in the kitchen are skilled indeed.

The Vietnamese crepe ($7.50), a huge yellow mezzaluna, arrived with a bouquet of fresh herbs, cilantro, mint, and basil. We were given instructions on how to combine the two, but either we didn't understand or just forgot, and we ended up just slicing the mezzaluna into strips (like a quesadilla) and scattering bits of the herb bouquet over the top. The crepe's filling seemed to consist largely of underseasoned rice noodles, so the flavor boost from the herbs was important.

No flavor boost was needed for the potstickers ($5.50), which were filled with a ground substance very like pork (tofu?) along with plenty of ginger. Just to make sure, and for that last kiss of verisimilitude, the potstickers were served with a shallow dish of nuoc nam laced with carrot threads. We also found no flavor shortage in the seaweed salad ($7), a tangle of green filaments, like spinach vermicelli after a bad night of tossing and turning, dressed with crushed sesame seeds and plenty of sesame oil.

For sheer wallop — and proof that lively spicing goes a long way toward compensating for lack of flesh or dairy — there's the spicy noodle soup ($7).

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