Carla Meyer

Dining review: Meat-free options expand in Sacramento dining scene

Blair Anthony Robertson
Blair Anthony Robertson

I may not be the ideal person to assess the pluses and minuses of two restaurants that do not serve meat, dairy or anything else that comes from living creatures.

I am not a vegan. In this job, I have to eat everything a restaurant has to offer.

I also crave things that are way off limits to vegans. I love to make omelets with six little cubes of chilled butter sprinkled into the beaten eggs before they go into the hot pan. I love the smell of ribs in a smoker, the taste and texture of a perfectly cooked steak, charcuterie of all kinds, grilled cheese sandwiches – with bacon.

But there's a flip side. I love animals and believe there is a moral responsibility that comes with being at the top of the food chain. I'm also interested in a healthy lifestyle, and these days that means that two of my three daily meals are entirely fruits and vegetables, i.e. vegan.

Most of us could stand to eat better. If that means becoming a full-fledged vegan, so be it. If it's going without meat for a day or a meal, that's OK, too.

With that in mind, we're putting our omnivorous ways on hold for a week and taking a look at two places in town that are entirely vegan.

Green Boheme

1825 Del Paso Blvd., Sacramento

(916) 920-4278

Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday to Sunday

Overall 2 1/2 stars (promising)

Owner and chef Brooke Preston takes a rather extreme niche – raw and vegan cuisine – and makes it come alive with intelligent and creative recipes. The food is raw, and that may seem off-putting to many, but the health-conscious and mindful eaters will appreciate the intent.

It might be tempting to think of chef and owner Brooke Preston as a nut and a food extremist. Not only is she a vegan, her charming little restaurant on Del Paso Boulevard serves only raw vegan food. That means no meat and no heat, but it doesn't mean no fun and no flavor.

Preston has been eating this way the past five years and opened Green Boheme in March 2010. She made her dietary transformation because of a health condition.

"I, quite frankly, thought raw people were out of their minds. I just didn't know," she told me during a recent chat. "I started to do some research about what our needs really are and how I could heal my body."

In the raw world, it's called "living foods." Preston and other devotees believe food served this way provides the most nutrition and that you derive the natural enzymes from food that aid in digestion and bolster your health.

Preparing food this way requires plenty of creativity, which is how she came up with something called a "purple burrito." The tortilla is actually a large swath of purple cabbage, crisp and fresh and appropriately bitter. Instead of Mexican rice, she uses jicama. The "cheese" is made from pulverizing macadamias and cashews into a paste, which is seasoned and allowed to age to make it probiotic. She throws in some sprouted sunflower seed pate (instead of spicy beans), adds salsa verde (which is actually the salsa verde we all know and love), tops it off with mock sour cream made of cashew and coconut, and voilà!

If you're a meat eater, I know: Voilà in this case could be French for "Yecch!"

But wait. I ate this mass of culinary weirdness and loved it. OK, liked it. Maybe it was strange. And it was cold. But the flavors were a pleasure – more foreign than exotic.

The textures in this dish and others can be jarring. Sometimes the raw food, ground up or blended, is creamy. Sometimes the food can seem too firm, too cold, too something. I don't think I've ever eaten raw beets until now, and I missed the firm but tender feel of a nicely cooked beet.

The "hamburger," of course, is entirely cowless. And bun-free. Preston uses sprouted seeds mixed with seasonal vegetables – right now, that's a lot of butternut squash and mushrooms blended and formed into a patty with some ground flax seeds added along the way.

Onion rings? Coming up. But there's no deep fryer here. Green Boheme style means they're dehydrated – the onions are sliced, placed in a saltwater brine to tone down the bitterness, then battered in a mix of sesame seeds and orange zest. After that, they're placed in a special dehydration machine for 24 hours to 2 1/2 days. They were odd and dense and sort of delicious. Unlike the real thing, they won't take 10 years off my life expectancy.

Preston is a true believer, but she's not preachy or self-righteous. She encourages folks to embrace this way of eating by showing them how. Wednesday nights at the restaurant are reserved for "un-cooking classes." They start at 6:30 p.m., cost $10 and no reservations are required.

The restaurant also has a "raw vegan challenge" that helps people get through 30 days of eating this way, which Preston says is long enough to say farewell to old habits and to tame cravings – the ones involving platters of ribs and juicy cheeseburgers. Part of the challenge in the initial 30 days is to redefine what food means to us and reinvent our expectations about how to enjoy food.

Most folks can find common ground in this raw and vegan world with desserts. The two I tried were creamy and rich, and I didn't miss eggs and butter whatsoever. The pomegranate cheesecake was outstanding. It better be. Preston says the preparation is arduous. It's made with the juice of pomegranate seeds, blended with a coconut base. The chocolate Valencia tort also was creamy and decadent, though the flavor was much bolder. It has raw organic cacao, orange rind and orange juice. I would have preferred if some of that orange-ness was dialed back a tad.

Making such pronouncements about the food here is a tremendous challenge because there is no place like this for many miles. Café Americain in Old Sacramento dabbles in raw food, but it also serves cooked steaks and seafood.

I have no benchmarks by which to measure Green Boheme, only a sense that it does what it proposes to do and does it admirably. With Preston's determination, it will continue to get better. Green Boheme should be visited by the mindful and health-conscious eaters among us, as well as curious folks looking for a new and rather enlightening food experience.

Loving Hut

3500 Stockton Blvd., Sacramento

(916) 451-6852

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday to Friday; noon to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday

Overall: 2 stars (fair)

The pluses for us didn't outweigh the minuses. The vibrant Thai flavors were sometimes out of sync, and the vegetables often needed to be prepared in a more dynamic and precise way. Some nicely done dishes were enough to recommend it for vegans but not necessarily for non-vegans looking for a new food experience.

Though it's off the beaten path on Stockton Boulevard, this is an accessible restaurant to venture into the vegan world, partly because many of the meatless dishes are created to look like meat, for better or worse.

If you're an omnivore dining out with vegan friends or loved ones, this is your place. It doesn't hurt that the prices are very low – lunch specials are $4.95, and the priciest thing on the entire menu is $8.50.

While it may be accessible and affordable, it's also potentially off-putting to those who blanch at the idea of soy products masquerading as slabs of pork, filets of salmon and thin slices of beef.

I am a big fan of Thai flavors. That kind of cooking is so bright and dynamic that it finds its way into dishes at some of our finest restaurants.

In several dishes we tried, the trusty Thai flavors came off as either one-note wonders or were out of sync altogether.

Even though I will eat just about anything except Little Debbie brownies, I found myself perplexed as I chewed on the "grilled brown soy protein" in the No. 33 – dubbed the "grilled wonder" and a seeming bargain at $6.50. The thinly sliced "meat" was too rubbery, and the seasoning tasted like nothing that came from nature. Why shape the protein on the plate to look like meat? You lured me inside because you're meatless.

The same could be said for the "Au Lac special." Why not just call it mysterious, off-putting protein products set down next to vegetables you will probably recognize.

There is soy everywhere on this large menu. There's too much of it and it's not done well enough to be featured so ubiquitously.

But the most distressing thing about this vegan joint is how it does its vegetables. If you're going to go meatless, you have to really rock the veggies. They have to be the best vegetables in town. People should be talking about how amazing these vegetables are. A great vegetable dish, seasoned properly and cooked to perfection, can make anyone forget about meat.

The broccoli in the "broccoli wonder" made me wonder why it wasn't significantly better. It apparently was steamed – and too watery. The best broccoli is bright and firm and flavor-packed, not waterlogged and bland.

The menu is very large and tries to please everyone, which is potentially a bad thing. There are, however, some bright spots. I ordered "Mongolian delight" extra-hot, and found the spiciness worked well with the mixed vegetables. All that seasoning tended to hide the worst parts of the Loving Hut way of cooking – the soy products. Here, it was thinly sliced and less conspicuous among the green onion, bell peppers and Mongolian sauce.

The "sautéed garlic delight" was also a lively dish that showcased spicy yet balanced cooking. Same with the "kung pao" thingamajig, again because the cornucopia of carrots, onions, celery, zucchini and peanuts helped make eating the soy protein a little easier.

My favorite Loving Hut dish was a blast of heat that really worked – the "Guru potato curry." Again, there's soy, but the ample servings of tender potatoes and other veggies in the spicy curry sauce were a real treat.

Loving Hut is at its best when its Thai cooking really shines through. I often order meatless dishes at mainstream Thai restaurants simply because the flavors are so good and the vegetables are cooked so nicely. Loving Hut needs to be at least this good, and sometimes it falls short.

More care in the preparation of the vegetables, more balance and refinement in the seasonings and fewer slabs of soy posing as parts of pigs and cows, and this humble place could be much more appealing as a destination for vegans and the vegan-curious.