At the gates of the vegetable kingdom
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Considering that San Francisco is the center of the vegetarian universe and home to one of the country's first, greatest, and most durable vegetarian restaurants Greens it has long seemed faintly odd to me that we don't have more Greens-like places: restaurants that reconcile the vegetarian impulse (with its complex ecological and ethical components) and high style. We do have Millennium, at least, and maybe its sustained excellence has scared off would-be copycats and competitors.
Millennium isn't as old as Greens, which turns 30 (!) next year, but it's been around the block a few times in fact, it's even changed blocks. The restaurant opened in 1994 in a modest Civic Center setting; its neighbors then included, a few steps away, Ananda Fuara, a cheerfully plain spot whose curry-scented asceticism embodied what many people might have thought was a fundamental quality of vegetarian restaurants. But about five years ago, Millennium moved into much more sumptuous digs in the Hotel Savoy (now the Hotel California) at the edge of the theater district. In doing so, it displaced a French restaurant I'd long liked, Brasserie Savoy, but this sin can be pardoned, if only because there are plenty of good French restaurants in this city, but only one Millennium.
Millennium is special but why? The setting is handsome, certainly and not too different from its Brasserie Savoy days but it doesn't call attention to itself beyond a gracious spaciousness, gently partitioned with drapings of gauze and lit by netted cylinders that dangle from the high ceilings like hemp hams being air-cured. Noise is carefully controlled despite the hard tiles of the checkerboard floor. The space tells people: this is a nice place, a serious restaurant, and we want it to look good, but we spend most of our resources of money and energy on the food.
And the food is marvelous. It is elegant, nuanced, interesting, and is the kind of food you would be sorely tempted to offer to a meat-eater without disclosing there's no meat in it nor butter, eggs, cream, or any other animal product to see if the meat-eater noticed. (My bet would be, probably not.) It's also the kind of food you'd never make at home, even if you knew how; the wealth of emulsions, purées, essences, and flavored oils is a triumph of saucing and reflects an investment of time and skill that make the best restaurant kitchens what they are and reminds us that some gastronomic experiences remain unique to restaurants. (Millennium's chef, Eric Tucker, has been running the kitchen from the beginning.)
One of the few dishes, perhaps the only one, I might have had a hope of recreating at home was a platter of seared romano beans ($5.75) flat green beans sprinkled with a mince of sundried tomato and dabbed with a rich black-olive tapenade. The gnocchi ($10.25), too, might just be within reach; these swam (with a cohort of similarly sized white beans) in a creamy morel mushroom sauce, with swatches of whole mushroom laid on top. (Morels are often described as resembling honeycombs, but they can also have the look of tiny brains.)
On the other hand, I would never attempt a dish like the black bean torte ($10.25), a disk-shaped layering founded on a whole-wheat tortilla and including caramelized plantains, a ladling of smoky black-bean puree, and some cashew sour cream. Rolling away from the torte's front door was a carpet of habañero-pumpkin salsa verde, while a salsa of strawberries and jicama completed the ensemble. At last, somebody using the tartness of seasonal strawberries in a savory rather than sweet sense!
As at many places around town lately, Millennium's menu offers excellent mix-and-match possibilities: you can make a nice little dinner for yourself with a couple of the smaller courses. But the main dishes do not disappoint; they're substantial and satisfying, and because they don't rely on meat, they're neither heavy nor oversimple. While the best meatless cooking, for me, involves dishes that traditionally don't have meat and don't bother with substitutes, we were impressed by the meatiness of spice-rubbed tempeh torpedoes ($22.95), blackened and plated with smashed potatoes and a mélange of summer squashes in a lemon-caper sauce of cashew cream. Also good was a napoleon ($22.95) of polenta-crusted zucchini spears, surrounded by white beans, braised baby carrots, and a corn-zucchini hash in a coconut-milk sauce.
The flavor palette draws on a world of influences. The kitchen has been known to use zatar, a spice blend common in the Middle East, and the value of seasoning practices from south and southeast Asia is certainly recognized. But the dominant flavorings are from the Mediterranean basin. This is particularly true of the dessert menu but this is particularly not a criticism of the dessert menu, since making any sort of dessert at all without cream or butter is a formidable undertaking, and making a dessert that would be exceptional at any restaurant is nothing short of astounding.
Millennium offers such a dessert. It is the lemon trifle ($8.25), a slice of rum-soaked walnut cake, topped with lemon cashew cream and capped off by a helmet of basil ice cream (also made with cashews) that reminded me of a pesto that had died, gone to heaven, and been reincarnated as a sweet. Its strange and alluring radiance half-obscured an equally worthy panna cotta ($8.25), a pearly disk of coconut milk and rosewater served with raspberries, an intense apricot emulsion, and a pat of chocolate-raspberry sorbet.
The patronage is surprisingly and pleasingly heterogeneous in age and affect. Having developed a mild case of hipster fatigue from Mission restaurants, I was relieved to see even younger people dressed nicely but unaffectedly at Millennium. They, like we, came for the food, stayed for the trifle, and left happy.
Dinner: Sun.Thurs., 5:309:30 p.m.; Fri.Sat., 5:3010 p.m.
580 Geary (in the Hotel California), SF
Pleasant noise level