Hold the butter. Instead, you might want to consider a “cheese” plate composed of cheeses crafted from nuts, or kelp “noodles” in the place of pasta — these are the dishes cropping up on the menus of Los Angeles’ trendy vegan restaurants. In fact, when hitting up the city’s emerging gourmet vegan scene, forget everything you know about plant-based foods. We say gourmet, but we don’t mean Whole Foods gourmet. The trend is much more than that. The last two years have ushered in a new era of upscale, decidedly aesthete, meat- and dairy-free eateries, which have blotted out our old-school preconceptions of vegan dining in dark, tapestry-filled rooms with less-than-appetizing tastes and smells emanating from mismatched pottery bowls. In the new digs, haute hippies rub elbows with Hollywood agents, celebrities and ladies who lunch. Here’s how three trailblazers are packing the city’s most discerning diners into well-designed spaces centered on the vegan approach.
With a wildly successful San Francisco outpost established, Café Gratitude kicked things in L.A. up a notch when brothers Cary Mosier and Ryland Engelhart opened shop in 2011 in upmarket Larchmont Village, with its tree-lined streets and family-oriented retailers. They followed up with the sleek, whitewashed, airy Venice location in 2012. In addition to inspiring all-organic vegan and raw fare, the restaurant brought a complete brand vision that lured in the foodies. They call their methodology “sacred commerce,” filtering the restaurant business through a pure, transparent and service-oriented ethos that aims to nurture the community with healthy food, a sustainable environment and good vibrations.
Even menu items are named with positive affirmations. For example, the seasonal bruschetta starter is called PRESENT, and the earthy hemp seed pesto bowl with local brown rice or quinoa, shredded kale, cherry tomatoes and almond Parmesan is GRACIOUS. Food should taste good, and here it does. The TERRIFIC is the lighter, more delicious pasta dish you could eat for days, comprised of raw, marinated kelp noodles tossed with basil hemp seed pesto, cashew ricotta cheese, heirloom cherry tomatoes, baby spinach, and green and kalamata olives, and dusted with just the right amount of almond Parmesan and chopped basil. The restaurants also offer cleanses, ranging from one day to five days, and I Am Cleansed supplements that accompany the program, including detox tea and the powerhouse Dr. Ohhira’s Probiotics, are for purchase at both locations.
At the Larchmont outpost, floor-to-ceiling glass windows envelop the space, providing a sense of unity with the outdoor dining patio, always filled to the brim with beautiful people. In Venice, the eatery is swathed in a neutral palette of natural wood and white walls, with the words “love, serve, remember” stenciled on in red. Giant wicker pendants hang over a communal dining table topped with the restaurant’s signature, colorful Fiestaware bowls and plates. If you believe you are what you eat, this would be a solid place to turn a new leaf.
In the heart of West Hollywood’s high-end boutique district, Crossroads Kitchen features innovative, all plant-based, Mediterranean classics — think kale spanakopita with harissa-spiced smoked tomato fondue and mint oil, or morel-showered scaloppini au poivre — dished on small plates and made without a speck of meat or dairy. In fact, this corner spot at Melrose and Sweetzer avenues, which formerly housed Dolce and Phillipe Chow restaurants, is the ideal place for vegans to bring their carnivore friends, easing skeptics into the lifestyle with complex, layered, but familiar flavors. “I was brought up by two foodies in New York and we ate everything,” says chef de cuisine and founding partner Tal Ronnen. “The inspiration behind most of the dishes at Crossroads is the re-creation of dishes I grew up eating without using any animal ingredients.”
Opened last spring by a group of investors that includes Ronnen, rocker Travis Barker and music and film producer Steve Bing, the restaurant was an instant magnet for celebrities ranging from Ellen DeGeneres, who heralded the opening with a rave tweet, to Sirs Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney. On a night we dined there, health-conscious yogi-mogul Russell Simmons enjoyed an intimate meal.
Ronnen, also known for catering DeGeneres’ nuptials and writing New York Times best-selling cookbook The Conscious Cook, collaborated with executive chef Scot Jones to create an elegant menu that befits the gorgeous collection of rooms raising vegan eating to way-cool heights. Don’t expect crunchy, earth-mother design here. Modern meets rustic where crisp gray walls intersect with wooden beams, and industrial brass chandeliers shed mood lighting over cozy, tufted banquettes. The adjacent wine room boasts a retractable roof that lets diners taste under the stars, too.
Keeping true to the building’s legacy as a hot spot, the bar scene is vibrant. James Beard Award-winning mixologist Jeremy Lake crafts cocktails — uniquely all plant-based — that align with the eatery’s emphasis on farm-fresh, aromatic ingredients. Don’t miss the Forever Young, made with Flor de Caña four-year-old rum, carrot, camu camu berry and ginger. Still, the real triumph of a meal at Crossroads is to end it with the selection of artisanal cheeses from the company Kite Hill, in which Ronnen is a partner. Using a blend of traditional methods, nut milks and their own cultures and enzymes, the non-dairy cheeses are a revelation. We’re not saying those who love their fromage will give up the real thing, but these cheeses definitely expand food horizons.
Chef Matthew Kenney’s M.A.K.E. in Santa Monica challenges the imagination in more ways than one. First, the location in the upscale food court at Santa Monica Place seems an unlikely home for an innovative raw vegan restaurant and cutting-edge culinary school. Yet it fits into this incredibly obsessive health-conscious city. The minimalist, 60-seat, cafeteria-style eatery serves beautifully plated, meticulously clean, plant-based foods — with nothing heated over 105 degrees to preserve beneficial nutrients and vital enzymes. Although the names of the dishes on the menu sound familiar, they are often an artfully rendered, conceptual nod to the original. For example, the flavorful kimchi dumplings topped with ginger foam and coriander are delicately wrapped packages of paper-thin dehydrated coconut filled with a paste of cashew, pickled cabbage and tahini, and then topped with microgreens and tiny, edible flowers. “The kimchi dumplings’ depth in flavor and creativity typically surprises people,” says Kenney. “It’s actually one of our favorite things to observe the expression on someone’s face the first time they try one.”
The signature tomato lasagna layers macadamia nuts, Santa Barbara pistachios, zucchini and basil — as well as a really delicious pesto. Elements of the traditional dish are technically there, but uncooked, unmasked and strictly dairy- and gluten-free. To drink, there are fresh-pressed juices, decadent smoothies, biodynamic wines and housemade cocktails such as the Heartbeat, which combines blood orange, strawberry, beet, basil and white wine.
With an iPad app (Matthew Kenney’s Raw Express), a soon-to-open restaurant (The White Lotus in Miami), 10 cookbooks and an online raw cooking academy as well as restaurants in Chicago, Oklahoma City and Belfast, Maine, Kenney, perhaps the world’s top authority on raw food, has turned his food revolution into an industry. M.A.K.E. reflects that entrepreneurial spirit. Just beyond the 12-seat, farm-to-table-focused tasting bar at the front of the restaurant lies the onsite food academy, Matthew Kenney Culinary, complete with light-filled prep space and high-tech raw-food “ovens.” Steps from the dining area, a sleek food stand doubles as a book and gift store, and offers the Make Out Menu of snacks and on-the-go libations such as bottled smoothies, pressed juices and straight shots — try the Cold Killer (lemon, turmeric, ginger, cayenne and oil of oregano) — that pack a nurturing punch.
As a whole, it all adds up to a powerful place to experience an entirely thought-provoking food movement, while rediscovering the fun and satisfaction of delightfully presented, simple fruits and vegetables. “M.A.K.E. and Matthew Kenney Culinary Academies are very community-oriented,” says Kenney. “Our team is integrated with our students and all of us watch what our community is doing all over the world. We like to say we are all together working toward ‘crafting the future of food.’”
Photos Courtesy of Crossroads Kitchen, Eric Wolfinger and M.A.K.E.