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Heaven on Earth 

Millennium

Wednesday, Aug 1 2001
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My friend Peter's idea of a fine meal used to run as follows: buttered English muffins, barbecued ribs, and a pint of Häagen-Dazs for dessert. Then he had a heart attack -- no joke -- and decided to eliminate a few edibles from his diet. He's not a breatharian (one who claims humans can survive without eating), nor even a vegetarian (one who never eats anything that once had a face); if he gave up chicken and fish he might qualify as a lactarian (one whose sole animal indulgence is milk, specifically nonfat in Peter's case). In short, he avoids red meat, eggs, and saturated fats, and in doing so reduced his cholesterol and lost 20 pounds. But at the same time he disqualified himself from the potential job of mainstream food critic. For example, I consider it my duty to eat just about everything, though I try to draw the line at the consumption of actual faces.

Peter has become a big fan of Millennium, a tony vegetarian restaurant that falls an occasional dairy product short of full-fledged animal product-free veganism (they offer milk for coffee and the rare bit of cheese on request). Peter and I dined there with his wife Stacey, and I went in with what I suppose is the typical meat-eater's attitude: Perhaps Millennium would perform well for a vegetarian place, which is sort of like saying, "Sure, he's good -- for a one-armed juggler." I'm still not sure how to describe the cooking style. It has a global scope that blends classic flavor combinations with a profound creativity; call it a cosmic brand of California cuisine. It's a wild ride, in other words. At their best, Executive Chef Eric Tucker and crew knock out some of the finest, most sophisticated dishes in San Francisco.

As an added bonus, we felt high by the time dinner was over, which really makes me want to check out Millennium's Aphrodisiac Night (five courses, followed by Chinese herbal love potions, served once a month on the Sunday closest to the full moon). When I do, I probably won't invite Peter and Stacey -- and I assume the feeling's mutual. This visit took place on a Tuesday, and despite the city's widely reported restaurant industry slump, Millennium was just about full. The space is long, narrow, and elegant, set in the Civic Center's Abigail Hotel. It has a tranquil, urban vibe reminiscent of a hidden bistro in Paris, with white tablecloths, a floor patterned with black-and-white diamonds, and on our visit soft, early evening light pouring through the open windows. Likewise, the customers had a certain sophistication to them: We saw thirtysomethings who may or may not make a living pursuing nonprofit endeavors and older couples who seemed to trade plates every few minutes, their synapses undoubtedly sizzling at the dishes' cunning and complexity.

Sampling Millennium's entire selection of beverages would require many trips to the restroom. You can try a yerba mate tea, a kava kava cocktail, chai, natural sodas, a calming potion, an energizing potion, or (if you can't wait until Aphrodisiac Night) the Love Potion #9. Fans of fermentation will find a solid selection of beers and an affordable, California-French wine list. Peter, who doesn't drink alcohol, enjoyed a taste of the grape via a glass of pinot noir juice, which presented a balance and natural sweetness reminiscent of good dessert wine. Later he shared a sip of his alcohol-free Haake-Beck, a crisp, hoppy brew that tasted close to the real thing -- so close, in fact, that I could probably down four before realizing something was missing.

As with any food, vegetarian fare doesn't have to be elaborate to succeed. After all, what could be finer than a ripe tomato with basil, lemon juice, salt, and olive oil? Still, Millennium's more complex dishes were equally successful, such as miso, tofu, garlic, and caramelized onions blended into the flawlessly creamy, delicately salty spread that accompanied a basket of chewy-crusted bread. And that was just the beginning: The entire meal offered endless juxtapositions of flavors and textures, as well as unusual twists on classic dishes. For example, the soup of the day, an Asian-style hot and sour, translated as a thick mung bean purée flavored with distinct notes of lemongrass, garlic, and galangal, the whole permeated with a delicate fruitiness that marvelously played off the soup's hearty consistency.

My only complaint was that a few offerings were too complex and lacked unity. Portobello carpaccio, a raw plate served either as an appetizer or an entree, consisted of garlic- and ginger-infused slices of mushroom, a refreshing jicama/cucumber/radish salad, earthy-tasting sprouted black quinoa (a South American grain), mango-avocado salsa, and a creamy hemp seed/cilantro/chili vinaigrette. Each element was satisfactory on its own, but the dish as a whole never exceeded the sum of its parts. Likewise, we weren't too crazy about the antipasto plate -- grilled red onions and overly sweet eggplant served with a bean-and-grain salad, tofu-based garlic aioli, and focaccia; had we excluded the bread, it would have been a salad rather than an assortment of hors d'oeuvres.

The grilled nectarine salad hit one off note -- the fruit was a bit undercooked -- but that hardly mattered once we sampled the tender baby lettuce and diabolically intricate Gewürztraminer/ vanilla/lavender/hazelnut-oil dressing -- easily one of the finest tastes I've ever come across. Then came the plantain torte, once again as good as food gets. Dense, rich layers of savory yet sweet fruit, whole wheat tortilla, and creamy cilantro tofu came with a brilliantly fresh-tasting watermelon salsa fresca and a zesty red pepper romesco.

For my entree I chose the Asian-style napoleon -- oyster mushrooms, Japanese eggplant, and smoked tofu in a light sesame sauce, set between layers of phyllo, then served over coconut milk/kafir lime-infused jasmine rice. I'd order it again, but preferred Peter's tamal -- a paper-thin skin of phyllo stuffed with shiitake mushrooms, smoked seitan (wheat-based meat substitute), corn, and huitlacoche (corn fungus), accompanied by a classic Peruvian saltado of potatoes, sweet peppers, and onion, a Oaxacan yellow pepper mole, and a delectable heap of braised chard. Stacey's firm, flavorful bourbon-smoked tempeh conjured three words -- "Big Nate's Barbeque" -- and was my favorite among our three entrees. Throw in the polentalike grit and chive cake, a side of sweet-pepper hash, and pods of lightly pickled okra, and you've got a plate that, like Big Nate's four-meat Hall of Fame combo (a former acquaintance of Peter's), left nothing but rhapsody in its wake.

Unfortunately, two desserts failed to equal the magic of our dinner selections. A peach panna cotta anchored with tofu and agar-agar (gelatin) tasted too acidic and not particularly creamy; the sides (blueberry broth, a pluot-blueberry sorbet, and a somewhat dry half-moon of shredded phyllo) were fine, but forgettable. The tofu-based chocolate-almond midnight came as a dense, rich mousse cake topped with maple-almond praline. It was divinely chocolaty, but again seemed to be missing something in its texture. I guessed it needed egg and Peter agreed, despite the fact that he hasn't eaten one for a year and a half. Still, the successes we encountered earlier shone so brightly I'd say Millennium is a must-visit on the city's food circuit.

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Greg Hugunin

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