Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Shizen, San Francisco

Vegan sushi isn't usually that exciting. If I had a dime for every avocado roll I've consumed, I'd have a penthouse in the One Fifty Seven building in NYC. But, surprisingly, as I asked around, I heard rave reviews about this new vegan sushi bar in the Mission District so I couldn't pass up the opportunity to go there myself.

Shizen, a vegan sushi bar and izakaya, opened in January 2015 in the heart of San Francisco. I arrived fairly early on a Thursday night by myself and saw a line out the door. As I walked in, I glanced around and noticed a very small dining area and a small bar. They said there would be a wait for a table, but as a single diner, I could sit at the bar now. I chose the bar!

The food menu and sake menus are fairly extensive. I started off with a Hana Awake sake that I adored! Looking around, the decor was quite simple, but the living moss artwork definitely catches your attention on the walls.  On the dinner menu, there are three pages of options -- all vegan. From small plates to varieties of sushi including nigiri, hosomaki, and uramaki to large specialty rolls, they have something for everyone.

I decided to order two dishes for dinner. I started with the Mushrooms Robata, a grilled assortment of enoki, shiitake, and king trumpet mushrooms. These were pretty good.

But, where the culinary skills really shined was in the Scarlet Smile roll. This huge roll was made with sweet potato tempura, avocado, spicy bean curd topped with roasted red pepper tofu sauce, and seaweed pearls. It just melted in my mouth it was so good.

I was pretty full, but when I saw that they offer one special dessert each night and there was only one left, I had to order it.  This dessert was a meal in and of itself. Housemade blueberry ice cream with tempura bananas and fresh fruit with sauce -- incredible! I actually ate this all by myself and loved it. No judging.

As I looked around, all of the meals looked really good and I only wish I could have tried more. The specialty rolls range from $11 - $13 each and other rolls were much less, so given how good the food is, I think it is priced appropriately. The service was pretty good -- remember, I was at the bar. And the atmosphere was lively. They don't take reservations so you'd be wise to come here early on a weekend night. The people waiting outside when I left looked like they were in for a long wait, but one for which they felt it was worth. Can't wait to come back as they further develop their menu in the future.

370 14th Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 678-5767

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Monday, January 25, 2016

The Sustainability Secret by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn

I would never call myself an environmentalist. I self-identify as an animal rights advocate. So when the publisher of The Sustainability Secret wrote to me and asked if I'd review it, I reluctantly agreed. What I discovered was that it was probably the best book I've read in the last year. It was inspired by Cowspiracy, a movie I have not yet seen, and although it certainly hits on the environmental impact of eating meat, it also touches on the health and ethical concerns as well. It is an easy-to-read to-the-point book that is informative and enlightening.

In just 165 pages, the authors, Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn, discuss everything from water as a finite resource and the realities of factory farming to the effect the industry has had on oceans and the advantages of veganic agriculture. There are some great graphics as well that show the effects visually for those who are visual learners.

Interestingly enough, I found the statistics on water consumption fascinating! "According to the EPA, the average household of three in our country consumes 50,000 gallons of water in one year for indoor use..." But, average meat consumption contributes to 405,000 gallons of water in one year per person! So, while California likes to blame their drought on human water usage, I think they need to address the usage of water used to support animal consumption as a food product instead.

As the authors address factory farming, they mention the trend of buying fresh and local. They quote Frank Reese, a poultry farmer, who says, "It's all a sham. It's the same kind of bird, and the suffering is in their genes. When the mass-produced turkey of today was designed, they killed thousands of turkeys in their experiments. Should it be shorter legs or shorter keel bone?" Whether the turkey is local or not, they all endured suffering.

Rain forests are an area I never really researched. This book has a whole chapter on them. Come to find out that animal agriculture is the number one source of the destruction of rain forests. "Cutting down the rain forests to provide ranch land and crop land for the meat industry means that we are cutting away both the earth's oxygen-producing capacity and its ability to absorb tons of global-warming carbon dioxide." And when rain forests are destroyed, they release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere contributing to global warming.

One of the best chapters addresses Activists, Governments, and Corporations and their ability to silence others and put forth laws protecting those who are harming animals and the environment. They discuss ag-gag bills and their effect on society as a whole.

Howard Lyman, a fourth generation rancher turned animal rights advocate states, "I totally believe, with every fiber of my being, that you cannot be an environmentalist and consume animal products. It's totally opposed. Kid yourself if you want. If you want to feed your addiction, so be it, but don't call yourself an environmentalist."

Of course, one of my favorite chapters was the one on Ethics, Dairy, and Eggs: Choosing Life Over Death. "We grow up assuming that having udders full of milk is the result of being a cow, not the result of being a pregnant female mammal. It seems remarkable to me that anyone can be a feminist, fighting for the rights of women, and also drink milk and eat eggs. The dairy and egg industries are massive global businesses built on the reproductive systems of enslaved female animals."  I couldn't have said it better myself.

I'll stop there because I could go on and on about what a great book this is, but now you'll have to just read it for yourself. You can find it on Amazon for under $20 here. Highly recommended!

Full Disclosure: Although the book was provided to me for free to review, that in no way influenced my veracious opinion.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Beefsteak, DC

Beefsteak is Jose Andres' first stab at fast casual in DC, originally aimed at the college kids of George Washington University. It has been open on the GW campus for about a year now with its second location having opened in Dupont Circle just a few months ago. I really wanted to love this place...yeah, I wanted to.

Beefsteak's motto is "vegetables unleashed." But, I hadn't gone all year for a few reasons: (1) none of the premade suggestions on the menu are vegan...none; (2) nothing is labeled as vegan or not on the website; and (3) their press release indicated that they were not a vegetarian or vegan restaurant. And it isn't that number three matters because I eat at meat-centric places all the time, it was just bothersome that they chose to point that out.

I heard good and bad things all year long so I finally gave it a try. As I walked in on a Friday evening, it had a stale feel to it. I walked up to the counter and asked if they knew what was vegan or not before I placed my order. The girl called down to another girl who said she did.

First, you choose any amount of vegetables you would like from the list that changes regularly.  As all of the suggested combinations weren't vegan, I was left on my own. I chose the warm vegetable bowl filled with sweet potatoes, edamame, asparagus, mushrooms, and bok choy. They then boil your veggies as you continue to choose the accompaniments. Next, you choose your grain: bulgar, quinoa, or rice. I chose quinoa. Then, you choose your sauce. They said that only the Garlic Yogurt wasn't vegan, which leaves the Black Bean, Cilantro, or Spicy Tomato. I chose the cilantro. Then, you can add something "meaty," which is all meat except for avocado for an additional .99 or 1.99. I skipped this. Why isn't there tofu or tempeh? Next, you choose a dressing. The Lemon Honey isn't vegan. I went with the Soy Ginger. Finally, there are other toppings.

They didn't tell me the kimchi had fish until after I had added it so they had to start over. They had no idea what was in the seaweed salad so I avoided that as well. I topped it with sesame seeds and that was it.

By the time I tasted it, it was lackluster. The vegetables were just boiled and blah. The cilantro sauce was good, but why is there both a sauce and a dressing as they didn't pair together well at all. The fact that nothing is labeled vegan in a veggie-centric restaurant is unbelievable. Right across the street, you have Sweetgreen and Cava Mezze -- both label all items as vegan or not. The meal was nearly $10, which would buy you an awesome salad at Sweetgreen. With that kind of competition, I don't know why any vegetarian would come to Beefsteak. Slight changes could fix all of this and I'm surprised that while Jose Andres' other restaurants like Oyamel have separate vegan menus, this one does not. Shame shame.

800 22nd Street NW
Washington, DC 20052
(202) 296-1421

Beefsteak Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Gracias Madre, San Francisco

One of the best vegan restaurants in San Francisco is Gracias Madre, a Mexican restaurant in the Mission District owned by the same owners of Cafe Gratitude. I first dined here when they opened in 2009 and was impressed, but not overly so. Asking around, it seemed like everyone regarded this as one of the top restaurants still, so I swung by to meet a friend for lunch on a Thursday.

This restaurant is really stunning from it's Mexican-style clay front to its huge wooden tables inside. We arrived right when they opened and were the first ones inside.

I thought we'd get to choose from their incredible regular menu, but beware, there is a very pared down menu for lunch. I started by ordering a fresh green juice to cleanse my body from the night before.

For lunch, I tried the Bowl Uno. This delicious meal was loaded with tempeh chorizo, black beans, guacamole, brown rice, and pico de gallo over lettuce and served with cashew cream. Additionally, their housemade sauces could be added, further increasing the flavor. This dish was so simple, yet so good.

My friend ordered the Gorditas -- lightly fried potato masa cakes topped with salsa verda, avocado, and cashew cream. He liked them just fine and I found them to be a nice light appetizer.

That was all we had. My bowl was fairly expensive at $12 and the gorditas were too at $11. But, they do specialize in fresh, locally grown, organic ingredients so you get what you pay for. The service was fine and the food was good. I'd come back, but next time, it'll be for dinner.

Gracias Madre
2211 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 683-1346

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Monday, January 18, 2016

Cash Cow by Elise Desaulniers

Elise Desaulniers' book,  Cash Cow, is a good introduction to the dairy industry as it addresses ten of the most common myths around cow's milk. Elise is a food ethics and animal rights blogger who is also interested in public policy, philosophy, and feminism and she weaves her perspectives throughout her explanations of the myths.

One of the things I liked about this book was its brevity. A small book of only 139 pages, it hits on common misperceptions concisely, keeping the reader engaged throughout. I also like that it addresses the types of things a vegan hears on a regular basis such as the calcium myth. Many people think that the best source of calcium is cow's milk. It really isn't. She even addresses bioavailability, which is how much of the nutrients a food contains that the body can actually utilize. "The calcium found in plants has greater bioavailability than the calcium in cow's milk. On average, we absorb 30 percent of the calcium found in dairy products and fortified foods and twice that amount when it comes to the calcium found in some green vegetables like bok choy, broccoli, and kale." It's true!

Another myth: "If cows were unhappy, they wouldn't produce milk." Actually, "cows produce milk because they are forced to--we artificially inseminate them, and then take their calves away from them at birth. They spend their lives tied up in stalls, without access to the outdoors, and are later sold to become ground beef."  Many people who consume milk aptly think that cows just produce milk all the time. But, they are mammals just like us. They have to be raped and impregnated to produce milk as they only produce milk for their babies just like we do; and then we steal that milk from them. After that, we steal their baby from them. It's really one of the most horrific industries when you sit down and think about it. And even if you don't eat meat, but consume milk, you contribute to the meat industry because the male calves are immediately sold to the meat industry and all cows eventually end up there. Crazy.

Something else you hear often is, "I could never give up cheese." Elise addresses this as well as "just like with caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol, it's possible to become addicted to some common foods like cheese..." " is also said to contain various compounds from the morphine family."  That's why it is so addictive. The chemical reaction in your brain from eating cheese is similar to many addictive drugs.

It's all quite fascinating. If you still wish to eat dairy by the time you finish the book, I'd be amazed. For those who aren't familiar with the atrocities in dairy production, it'll be an eye-opener. And Elise presents it well.  I will say that many of her examples relate to Canada (not the U.S.) as that is where she is based, but overall the information is thorough and presented well. It's a good read. To order, visit Amazon here. Currently, the book sells for just $16.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Millennium, Oakland #3

As you may have heard, Millennium, one of the top upscale vegan restaurants in the country, was forced to close after 20 years in the same location. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The Hotel California, a rundown hotel in downtown San Francisco, was bought by a new hospitality group and they told Millennium that they wanted a new restaurant. Eric Tucker, founding chef and owner, and Alison Bagby, general manager, realized they weren't ready to end this great thing they had going on. But, with investors pulling out, they had to raise money somehow to continue to serve the high-quality organic food they were known for. So, they launched a very successful Kickstarter campaign, and, voila! -- they reopened just a month later in the Rockridge area of Oakland in East Bay.

I had planned a trip out to the area and knew I had to hit the new location. My friend, Phil, and I headed out on a Wednesday night. We arrived in the little town of Rockridge -- a quaint area with a few shops and restaurants. We were about 30 minutes early and thinking that not many people would be here on a Wednesday night, we went to see if we could be seated. Um, no. They were packed. So, we sat down at the communal table and had a drink. The Millennium Manhattan I tried made with black-pepper vanilla rye, Carpano vermouth, whiskey barrel bitters, and house-brandied cherry was okay. But, my friend's Midsummer Pimm's was fantastic. It was made with rhubarb, strawberry and lime, and lemon juice.

We were seated on time at a table right outside of the kitchen. The space was fairly small, but so much nicer than their previous location. In fact, it is beautiful! Classy, modern, and rustic is how I'd describe it with wooden tables and exposed ductwork. The bar wrapped around a corner making for lots of open walk-in seating. There were so many fantastic seasonal selections that we found it hard to choose and just went ahead and ordered the 5-course tasting for $67 per person. I also ordered the wine pairing for $28.

The first course was the Heirloom Tomato and Melon Salad. It sounded so boring so were the least excited about this one. Come to find out it was actually amazing! The flavors in the Indian-spiced tomato gazpacho burst when combined with the curry leaf curry-pickled shallots, coconut yogurt, and toasted papadum. This one was a clear winner.

The second course was the Cornmeal Fried Squash Blossoms filled with lambsquarter-tofu cheese and served over a shaved fennel salad and pickled zucchini with fennel aioli. Goodness gracious - if this was indicative of what was to come, I was going to love all of these courses. The crust was amazing and the contrast between the stuffed squash blossoms and licorice was refreshing.

As a special order, we requested the Sesame and Arborio Crusted King Trumpet Mushrooms. These types of fried mushrooms are one of Eric's signature dishes. However, these weren't that great. I mean, they were good, but nothing mind-blowing like they have been in the past. And the appetizer was huge so we had a few and moved on.

The third course was Red Lentil Lemongrass Coconut Curry. This dish was a flavor explosion. Picture a Jasmine rice cake atop seared Asian vegetables, kohlrabi, green beans, gai lan, and anise glazed yuba with ginger black bean oil topped with Thai basil in spicy plum and shallot sambal. The sauce is what really brought all these flavors together and provided the warm curry for the seared vegetables and fried cake. Yum.

The intermezzo was a melon sorbet with a blackberry.

The fourth course was the Brik Purse. This one was awesome. There was grilled portobello and braised chard with summer truffle and pistachio filling served with butter bean sugo, smoked onion coulis, spelt salad, green olive salsa verde, and topped with roasted maitake mushrooms. Sorry for the pic - this was one I forgot to take so I grabbed my friend's iphone pic. :(

Last, but not least, we had dessert. This turned out to be an amazing sampling of some of their favorites. The blackberry lattice pie was fantastic served with white nectarine sorbet. There was a tiny almond cake with raspberries. And, best of all, was the cheesecake with pistachios.

Wow. I'll say a couple things about this meal. First, it was the best meal I've ever had in Millennium in all the times I've been there. It's like they took it a notch up and gave it their best. Second, I love the atmosphere and decor. Third, the tasting menu is way too much food. This was like three meals -- I'd suggest smaller portions going forward. Fourth, the wines were only so-so, but for $28, they were fine. Although the service was great, the server didn't know much about the wines and by bringing out just glasses of wine without the bottle, I had no idea what I was drinking. In one case, I asked where a wine was from and he had no idea. At least give me a country! Lastly, for $67, this meal is a steal. I walk away from this experience being utterly impressed. Eric and Alison -- you done good. Congrats. I wish you another 20+ years.

Previous reviews
February 19, 2013
November 24, 2011

Millennium Restaurant
580 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 345-3900

Millennium on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 11, 2016

Argo Tea, Chicago O'Hare Airport

There are a couple locations of Argo Tea in the Chicago O'Hare airport -- in terminal 2 and 3. I was trying to find a quick bite to eat and stopped by only to be surprised at all the vegan options! Win!

There were five salads of which all of them appeared to be vegan (check the ingredients). This included the Chickpea, Garden Lentil, Edamame, Black Bean, and Kale Salads. There were also lemon poppy and green tea vegan muffins and a great selection of drinks including, of course, teas.

I chose the Garden Lentil, but was somewhat disappointed as it turned out to be a tabbouleh instead with lots of parsley. It was a nice salad, but tasted like it had been sitting around too long -- not the freshest.

Either way, it definitely hit the spot as a light lunch before my connection. Definitely check out their seasonal offerings if you are looking for a quick bite in the airport.

Argo Tea
Terminal 2 and 3

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Friday, January 8, 2016

Hacienda Los Jardines, Ottawa, IL

After my review of Jardines last year, the manager contacted me and asked me to give them another try. Hacienda Los Jardines is a huge Mexican restaurant in the downtown area of Ottawa, Illinois. We arrived just before they were scheduled to close at 8 p.m. on a Sunday and took a seat outside.

The chips and salsa they serve are great! We couldn't get enough. I started with a classic margarita, which is, of course, one of their specialties.

Having reread my last review of Jardines, I decided to go with the Fajitas Vegetarianas, which was a heap of marinated seasonal vegetables like red and green peppers and onions served with rice, beans, lettuce, tomato, and avocado. I thought the rice and beans were really nicely cooked. The tortillas were fresh and salsa was great. I was very pleased with my meal on this trip.

I will also give kudos to the server as she was very patient with our large group as she was cleaning up the restaurant towards the end of the night. We tipped her well.

They still offer a choice of veggies, soy chorizo, or cactus as vegan options. On the first visit, I found the soy chorizo to be a bit dry so I'd recommend the veggies as an alternative. All in all, it was a good time. On the next visit, I'll try the cactus. Thanks, Jardines, for offering great Mexican fare in this small town.

Previous review
December 5, 2014

711 LaSalle Street
Ottawa, IL 61350
(815) 434-2833

Hacienda Los Jardines Mexican Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Autumn Harvest Noodle Soup

The Autumn Harvest Noodle Soup from Kathy Hester's The Easy Vegan Cookbook is a warming, hearty soup filled with root vegetables, mushrooms, and pasta. Flavored with fresh dill and caraway seeds, you will find this to be a very satisfying main course or a complement to a bigger meal.

Autumn Harvest Noodle Soup
Serves 4

  • 2-3 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 medium onion, minced (about 1/2 cup)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp caraway seeds
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 3 cups sliced mushrooms
  • 4 cups water, divided
  • 1 medium rutabaga, diced; or turnip or potato
  • 2 medium carrots, sliced into half-moons (about 1 cup)
  • 8 Brussels sprouts, shredded or halved
  • 1 tsp dill weed
  • 3/4 cup small pasta such as macaroni or bow ties
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 cup cashews (soaked overnight or for a few hours)
  • 2 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup water, as needed
Heat the oil over medium heat and saute the onion until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic, caraway, and cumin and saute until the spices are fragrant, about 1 minute.

Add the mushrooms and saute until they begin to release their juices. Add 2 cups water, rutabaga, carrots, Brussels sprouts, and dill. Cover and reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer until the root veggies are tender, about 30 minutes.

Add 2 cups water and the pasta. Simmer until the noodles are tender, about 15 minutes. Add the salt and pepper to taste.

Make vegan sour cream by draining the water from the cashews. Then, add cashews to a blender with the lemon juice and just enough water to keep the blades working. You will need to scrape down the sides several times and blend. Do this until it's smooth.

Serve with a side of vegan sour cream and a sprig of fresh dill.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Lotus Cafe, Silver Spring, MD

Seeking an escape out of the city, I met a good friend of mine at Lotus Cafe in Silver Spring. I must say I was a little worried when I saw the outside of the cafe as it looked very rundown, but as soon as I tasted the food, I felt much better.

We opted to sit outside where we walked over brick that badly needed to be replaced and sat at a high-top table near a family that was finishing up. Their vegetarian selection is extensive and they will happily identify what is vegan or not.

With so many choices, it was hard to choose! We started with the Tofu Summer Rolls filled with vermicelli noodles, tofu, basil, and lettuce. The tofu was really flavorful, which overall made the rolls really good. And the peanut sauce was great too.

For my entree, I got the Black Pepper Gluten. The seitan was stir-fried with mushrooms and onions in a rich black pepper sauce and served with veggies on the side. It was absolutely delicious and very filling. I was really impressed with this dish.

My friend got the Veggie Fuzion Noodles that had tofu, broccoli, onions, baby corn, and peas in a curry sauce. He also enjoyed his meal.

The service was attentive throughout our meal and the prices were right. The entrees were only $10 each and were pretty large portions. All in all, I'd say this is a low-key place that you could go with old friends. The decor certainly won't impress anyone, but who needs to be impressed when the food is good. Bon appetit.

Lotus Cafe
8077 Georgia Avenue
Silver Spring, MD 20910
(301) 588-8888

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