As California's premier vegetarian restaurant celebrates its 20th anniversary, it's showing no signs of slowing down
For two decades, San Francisco's Greens Restaurant has been setting the standard for inventive vegetarian cuisine. It began as a humble offshoot of a local Buddhist center, and it was a hit from the day the doors opened. The restaurant's popularity was fueled by the culinary wizardry of chef Deborah Madison, a Chez Panisse alumna.
"The idea for the restaurant was an outgrowth of my experience at the Tassajara Hot Springs, a retreat run by the Zen Center," recalls Madison. "We cooked for people from the Bay area who loved the food and constantly asked us to open a restaurant." Success came quickly due to the delicious and creative cuisine, not to mention a spectacular location overlooking the San Francisco Bay and the Marin headlands. "I think Greens really led the way by making meatless food appeal to a lot of people, whether they are vegetarian or not," she says.
When Madison left the restaurant in 1985, her colleague Annie Somerville replaced her as head chef and quickly gained national acclaim. Under Somerville's aegis, the restaurant's dedication to using fresh seasonal produce and offering unusual menu selections, including twists to classics such as gratins, tarts and stews, continued to blossom. To accommodate the burgeoning demand for Greens' food, she opened a carry-out service featuring a short but brilliantly executed menu of sandwiches, soups, salads and pastries.
Somerville feels lucky to work in what she describes as an "engaging" environment. "It's a powerful, beautiful place where small miracles happen every day," she says. "As the seasons change, we bring in new menus and new ideas-we continue to reinvent ourselves." For inspiration, the busy chef forages through seed catalogs, frequents other restaurants and regularly combs the Bay area's leading farmers' markets.
"I think part of the sustainability of Greens is that we don't have a dogmatic approach to vegetarianism," explains Somerville. "The emphasis here is on lots of color, texture and variety. We're about really good food that happens to not have meat." But she's candid about the challenges of creating a revolving array of innovative foods that do not involve the dense flavor of meat, fish and fowl. "It's a lot of work," she admits. "We have to compose carefully. Appetizers are easy-the entrees are tough. We make an effort to have lots of different things, yet at the same time I don't want to serve food that's all over the map." Somerville tries to keep it simple. "But in vegetarian cookery you have to work at simplicity," she chuckles. "It can't be too simple or people will be disappointed." The following recipes-a delicious sampling of not-too-simple items that have appeared on the restaurant's menu over the past 20 years-are guaranteed to delight.
Potato Cakes with Green Garlic and Asiago Cheese
4 SERVINGS OVO-LACTO
Make these griddle cakes in the early spring, when tender shoots of green garlic appear in the farmers' markets. If green garlic isn't available, you can substitute leeks. The potatoes are precooked, so the skillet or griddle top needs very little oil and the cakes cook quickly. Keep the first batch of cakes warm in a low oven while you make the remaining cakes.
1 lb. large Yellow Finn or Yukon Gold potatoes
1 1/2 tsp. olive oil
6 shoots green garlic or 1 leek (whie and pale green parts), sliced (1 1/2 cups)
Salt and freshly gorund black pepper
1 large egg
2 Tbs. creme fraiche, plus 1/2 cup for garnish (see glossary, p.222)
1 1/2 oz. Asiago cheese graed (1/2 cup)
1 Tbs. all-purpose flour
1 to 3 Tbs. vegetable oil for cooking
COOK POTATOES in large pot of boiling water until still slightly firm and not completely cooked, about 20 minutes. Drain, reserving a little cooking water to moisten skillet for sauteing green garlic. …