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Copping a 'Tude 

It's hard to take a place called Café Gratitude seriously, but the food is seriously good

Wednesday, Jun 1 2005
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I don't know what I was in a past life or what I might come back as in the next, yet I find myself, meat-eater that I am, frequently drawn to vegetarian and vegan restaurants. It may be that I'm attracted to their "otherness," or possibly to the novelty of discovering clever substitutes for chicken and beef, or perhaps I do indeed want to hedge my bets with the gods of karmic justice so I don't get reincarnated as a milk-fed calf.

Whatever the reason, I will tell you that the granola-bashing boys in Washington, D.C., would have a field day with Café Gratitude (2400 Harrison, 824-4652, www.withthecurrent.com), a newish vegan (and mostly raw foods) restaurant in the Mission District. Heck, even tree-hugging loonies like myself can't keep a straight face when pondering a name like "Café Gratitude" and a menu that introduces each item with the declarative "I Am ..." followed by a Goddess-worshipping, feel-good affirmation (i.e., "Glorious," "Fulfilled," "Lusciously Awake") -- resulting in dishes such as a pizza called "I Am Passionate." Couple this with quotes posted around the restaurant that say things like "Our food and people are a celebration of our aliveness," group tables covered with a spiritual-exploration board game called the Abounding River, and murals of children with arms spread wide, and I can't help thinking this could be my big break for a spot on the SNL sketch-writing team.

In fact, the greatest feat the cafe performs -- aside from offering remarkably good food that tastes cooked but is not -- is hiring a staff that stays in character. My waitress exhibited not the slightest hint of sarcasm upon delivering my food with the announcement, "You're celebrating and you're great!" (Translation: Here's your coconut seviche with avocado, mixed greens, and live flax-seed crackers, and your spicy tomato, carrot, and celery juice.)

I looked up, smiled weakly, and mumbled, "Um, yeah, I guess I am," then proceeded to bury my nose in one of the "abundance" cards on the table. My eyes were rolled so far up in my head I almost forgot to take a bite. But when I did, I wasn't just pleasantly surprised; I was a wee tad dazzled. Fresh young Thai coconut shaved into dollop-size pieces was more than a satisfying stand-in for whitefish -- soft but not mushy and not too coconutty -- and was filled out with bits of tomato, onions, and slices of avocado dressed in a chili-spiced lime juice/coconut milk marinade.

The dish reminded me of another reason I like to go to vegan restaurants: It takes a great deal of creativity to create a nonmeat, nondairy, uncooked menu with genuine variety. Café Gratitude accomplishes much of this with a dehydrator, which causes foodstuffs to stick together almost as if they were cooked. The crackers, for instance, made with flax seeds and carrot pulp, were reminiscent of an Indian pappadam -- the dehydration process gave them a crackly, cohesive texture, and the seasonings offered a welcome zip. Other dishes use nuts as a dairy substitute in things like "Parmesan cheese" and "ice cream" -- with amazingly good results. For dessert, I had "I Am Cherished" with a side of "I Am Praising," aka raw cacao cheesecake made with cashew cream and maple syrup and an almond-date crust, with frozen soft-serve vanilla-nut cream, which tasted better than most fro-yos (for those with time, get one of the other flavors, which you hand-crank at your table).

Hard as it is to admit, I left with nothing but a positive attitude about Gratitude. I am humbled -- and now I am done.

About The Author

Bonnie Wach

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