San Francisco is composed of many worlds: in one, men and women wear suits and whiz up high-speed elevators to the top of the Transamerica building (until recently, I held to the belief that the uppermost floor is built entirely from Lindor truffles and boasts a wine fountain). In a cross-town galaxy, "Transamerica" might be a documentary on one's downstairs neighbor.
But the great thing about the city is that its various worlds frequently overlap – in laundromats, at last call, and in the occasional rare dining experience that leaves everyone happy and full, even in the wallet. Case in point: Millennium, an artful mash-up of hippie and high class.
This weekend, I experienced just such a coalescence when my father, a venerable business-type, flew in for a meeting and informed me that the highest occupiable floor of the Transam Pyramid is just an inconveniently small conference room. After introducing him to my roommate Bella Donna (formerly Donald), I wanted to treat him to a taste of the city that would satisfy his unabashedly carnivorous appetite, impress him with SF’s classy culture, and yet not leave me scrambling to find a menu item that didn’t involve au jus.
I settled on Millennium, a veggie-only venue in the Hotel California, and shuffled my old man out the door before he could ask what kind of cuisine we were headed for. We’d already de-cabbed (traveling in style being one of the many perks of dining with Pop) in front of the restaurant when he finally weaseled it out of me.
“Vegetarian? Vegetarian!” he spluttered, looking genuinely shocked that I, his own flesh and blood, would so betray and deprive him of some other animal’s skin and bone. I almost felt bad as he plopped into his seat, not at all trying not to sulk.
The décor was the first thing to soothe his spirit: rich, heavy woodwork; black-and-white tiled floor á la French bistro, and an ornate, substantial zinc-topped bar may have reassured him that his meal, too, would be a satisfyingly substantial one. Even when I informed him that the restaurant’s interior had been recently redesigned with sustainability in mind (Charles de Lisle of Your Space Interiors chose curtains from recycled plastic bags, chandeliers that started life as paper grocery sacks, and earth-toned interior paints) he seemed at home in the cozy, cruelty-free faux leather booth – or at least sufficiently insulated from SF’s raging counter-culture, viz. a heavy tattooed specimen one table over.
Conscious, not crunchy – Millennium's classic décor is father-approved. Photo by Alison Bagby
Our server Justin was polite, just the right amount of chatty, and swift to suggest an array of dishes that would please my flesh-craving father, who at this point was becoming sort of embarrassed by his insistence on animal, given that the restaurant’s staff seemed to be nice folk.
(“I don’t eat that much meat,” he squirmed. I reminded him that he grew up working in a meat-packing plant, the son of its branch manager. And that his eyes turn red when he goes too long without a steak.)
The first dish to come out was the housemade tortellini ($12.75) with black chanterelle and chestnut filling and an array of accoutrements that risked sounding prissy (“carrot butter, saffron-spring onion-white wine broth, braised sunchoke and spigarello kale”) but that actually rounded the plate out with a delightful and necessary balance of flavors and textures. From the dense, sweet cubes of sunchoke to the delicate crisp breadcrumbs topping the dish, each element melted lusciously into the whole, while somehow holding on to its own identity. Dad took one bite and then made haste to safely locate his portion of the dish to his plate: half, or actually, a fair bit more than half.
Next up was the black bean torte – Justin’s suggestion – stuffed with caramelized plantains ($10.75). In truth, I thought the bean filling was a bit pasty and bland, and that it didn’t do the plantains justice. But the pumpkin-habañero papazul more than supplied the needed kick, and the accompanying cashew “sour cream” was satisfyingly rich, tart, and abundant. Here, Dad broke out with a “this is totally vegetarian?” He scraped his fork across his already-clean plate and licked it. In other words, success.
From there, things just got better. We were surprised when oyster mushrooms ($11 in most circumstances) crusted with chickpea flour and thyme landed on our table, courtesy of the kitchen, simply because we commented that they sounded good. In truth, they were fantastic. Entrees included the seared sweet potato griddle cake ($23.25) with cauliflower, winter greens, and cilantro and lime chutney, which was crowned by an extravagant mound of sweet onion pakora. Resembling nothing so much as a bouffant-like mound of playafied burner-dreadlocks, the elaborate heap had my dad ready to rave. “This,” he said, waving his fork in the air. “This. This is... better than meat.” Whoa.
His awe and appetite carried us right through a Oaxacan green corn arepa ($24.75, billed as hearty fare to sate the meat-eaters among us), the chewiness and density of which was a slight disappointment to only me. Furthermore, it carried the now-expected array of plays on texture and contrasting tastes: poblano chiles, grapefruit, avocado and roasted butternut squash frolicked in complete harmony.
Three appetizers and two entrees later, and despite the generous portions, we were so charmed that we committed to a slice of chocolate almond midnight torte ($9.25). By the time it came out, my dad had been converted to a vociferous proponent of vegetarian cuisine and, eager to show his approval he said, “Great! I can’t wait to try this! I can’t believe they even make vegetarian dessert!”
Though I’m pretty sure my father hasn’t imbibed too many authentic mincemeat tarts or lard-and-suet pie crusts, I refrained from pointing out the slackmindedness of his statement. I just smiled into my vegetarian cappuccino, feeling wholly content and victorious.
So deeply entrenched was my father in the afterglow of a great gourmet experience that he didn’t even mind the mingled smells of urine and weed that wafted us along through the Tenderloin. “That was the only meal you could completely gorge on and still want to take a stroll afterwards,” he commented as we wandered, now cab-less, through the San Francisco streets.
Sun-Thurs 5:30 p.m. – 9:30 p.m.; Fri-Sat 5:30 p.m. – 10:30 p.m.
580 Geary, SF
Beer, Wine and Full Bar