Don’t let the laid-back atmosphere of Veg fool you. There’s significant action behind the scenes of the new midtown Sacramento vegetarian restaurant.
Veg, which opened in January in the former Level Up Lounge space above Thai Basil at 25th and J streets, retooled its menu and hours of food service during the two-week span in April in which I made review visits. What started as a breakfast/lunch spot that served food until 3 p.m. became a lunch/dinner spot, open until 8, with a new, streamlined menu. Brunch items are now reserved for weekends.
The changes turned out to be for the better, helping establish this cafe as a strong player in the local vegetarian dining scene. But the sudden change, within the context of a restaurant that looks like someone’s flat and employs a staff that defines the concept of “chill,” startled a bit. Partly because this change rendered some of my early observations about the food instantly moot.
Gone from the revised menu is a naan pizza that carefully balanced spicy scrambled tofu, marinated red onion and a tangy cashew and coconut milk “cheese.” My vegan dining companion had cited that particular item as a reason to return to Veg.
Gone as well was an omelet, loaded with vegetables and flavored by garam masala, with clove and cumin, that I initially found off-putting (clove and egg?) before succumbing to its fluffy-egged charms.
That omelet and I had taken a journey together. Where was I to put all those feelings now?
Pardon me for getting so real, but Veg encourages authenticity. The cafe sits on the airy second floor of an old house and holds a sofa and cozy, stuffed chairs. Its service staff, led by general manager, server and Jill-of-all-trades Dana Andrak, emanates a warm, hang-loose vibe bordering on the beatific.
Veg serves vegetables but also aims to be a place where like-minded people can gather to talk, drink, eat or just “veg,” verb-style, said Suleka Sun-Lindley, who co-owns the new cafe and Thai Basil.
Sun-Lindley, burned out by late nights and other hassles associated with nightclubs, decided to devote her upstairs space to a topic that interests her more – the dietary focus on seasonal, vegetarian foods that’s part of the aruyveda wellness philosophy.
Thai Basil, for which Sun-Lindley serves as chef, offers loads of vegetarian options and seasonal ingredients. But Sun-Lindley wanted distinct dishes for Veg and created a beginning menu of breakfast and lunch items that were in her Thai spice wheelhouse but also encompassed Indian cuisine. She came up with three basic spice mixes for Veg’s menu, using turmeric, curry powder, chili powder, cumin and other ingredients.
Veg started with breakfast and lunch instead of dinner, Sun-Lindley said, to help ease the burden of opening a second restaurant. Veg also took pressure off by initially emphasizing beverages – Chocolate Fish coffee, housemade chai, and beer, wine and kombucha on tap – as much as food.
But lunch caught on anyway, said Gabriel Crocker, a veteran vegetarian chef whom Lindley-Sun hired a month ago. Crocker, working with only a four-burner stove, oven and small fryer in a one-person kitchen, sometimes could not get Veg’s made-to-order dishes out quickly enough to accommodate diners’ lunch hours, he said.
So Sun-Lindley and Crocker – former chef for acclaimed Portland, Ore., vegan restaurant Blossoming Lotus – crafted a more manageable menu of lunch/dinner crossovers, and dropped weekday breakfasts, which never gained much traction. The new menu includes a falafel burger (combining the vegetarian burger and falafel sandwich from the previous menu) and daily “market curry” appropriate for the quick-turnaround lunch crowd. There also are small plates (samosas, mixed pakora) for people who come in at off-hours for beverages, conversation and sharable plates.
Veg’s food impressed before the changes, but more so after, when it stopped relying as heavily on scrambled tofu, a too-common ingredient in restaurant vegetarian dishes. Though the new menu barely holds enough items to qualify as a one-sheet, Crocker and Sun-Lindley compensate with craft and fresh-tasting ingredients.
It’s hard to say where Veg would stand in a town with a thriving vegetarian restaurant scene. But within this region’s anemic one (does farm to fork only apply to forks containing pork belly?), it’s a find.
Like downtown Sacramento’s Mother, Roseville’s Green Boheme and Fair Oaks’ Sunflower Drive-In, Veg relies on ingenuity rather than fake-meat products to satisfy vegetarians as well as carnivores seeking a break from meat. And the new lunch/dinner menu is largely vegan and gluten-free, with its items costing $12 or less – good prices for a full-service cafe.
Though some of that menu’s items are new, Sun-Lindley’s basic spices remain, as does the trinity of onion, ginger and garlic that underpins Indian and Thai cuisines, Crocker said.
The mixed pakora – a vegetable-fritter plate anchored by oyster mushrooms – stands out. The mushrooms and vegetables (bell pepper when we tried it, but they rotate) are battered with lentil and rice flour and coconut milk and deep-fried to a tempura-esque crisp. A bold, exceptionally fresh-tasting tomato chutney dipping sauce enhances the mushrooms’ naturally meaty flavor instead of covering it up.
The chutney also goes on the falafel burger, an improvement on Veg’s previous burger, which was made from tarot root, tofu, lentil and beet and lacked much heft or panache. The falafel burger also uses lentils – green and yellow – but the result is moister, heartier and more complexly flavored, thanks to the parsley, garlic, cumin and lemon juice in the patty’s mix.
Veg also now serves guacamole, a treat not historically associated with Thai or Indian food, though cumin and chili powder form a cultural bridge between cuisines that Veg’s chip-and-dip plate strengthens.
Crocker combines chunky avocado with ginger, cilantro, green onion and mint and then pings everything with lemon juice. He dusts the accompanying purple sweet-potato chips with turmeric, chilies, cumin and black pepper. The sweetness, sourness and heat always in play within this chip-and-dip combination make every bite distinctive.
The post-menu-change “market curry” bested the one I tried before the change. I recall little of the first beyond abundant potatoes and disappointment. But the second, a korma based in cashew and coconut milk and featuring chard, spinach and eggplant, offered the rich creaminess one expects from a curry without the sweetness that can obscure the vegetables’ flavors.
Veg, during the course of my visits, either removed or improved every dish with which I’d had any quibble – the omelet, burger, curry and finally, that naan pizza of which my companion was fond.
I liked the toppings but found the naan, which lacked any hint of crispiness, an odd pizza base. Crocker, who worked as a cook at OneSpeed and has an extensive pizza background, said he lacks the kitchen equipment to make proper pizza and will refrain from further attempts.
Such assertiveness, more than Veg’s cushy chairs or kombucha tap, should help continue to bolster its identity within the local vegetarian-restaurant scene and larger culinary landscape.
2431 J St., Sacramento. www.vegmidtown.com, 916-448-8768
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday
Beverage options: Full bar (left over from the nightclub). On tap: St. Rey and Dancing Coyote wines, Berryessa Brewing and Sudwerk beers, Zeal Kombucha and Chocolate Fish “Nitro” coffee.
Vegetarian friendly: The friendliest
Gluten-free options: Many
Noise level: Moderate
Ambiance: Veg sits on the second floor of an old house that still looks more like an old house than a restaurant and includes an airy sun porch that overlooks J Street. Dining at Veg feels like dining in the cozy flat of a friend – a friend who cares about health but isn’t preachy about it, as shown by all the booze available in the place.
The setting is lovely, the menu small yet lively and the service exceptionally friendly if not always especially well-informed about the menu.
The food satisfied before Veg’s recent menu shift, but improved after. Especially its burger and “market curry.” Other dishes with which we had quibbles since have been taken off the menu, rendering our criticism of them moot.
☆☆ 1/2 stars
Servers were uniformly warm and welcoming, but knowledge about dishes varied sharply among the staff.
All menu items are $12 or less – reasonable for a full-service cafe.