Herbivore The Earthly Grill

I was totally sick of eating delicious food all the time

Last week a friend came to town, and he had an expense account and a room at Campton Place, which meant dinner at the Campton Place restaurant, a restaurant that is more upscale than those I frequent. We were served at least a dozen tiny amuses-bouches, the ingredients of which we forgot as soon as the waiter described them to us. I had spaghetti wrapped in a tight spiral, with truffles all around it and poached egg in the middle, then lobster bisque, which came with a little plate of lobster pieces prepared in about six different ways, each more creative than the last, as if lobster were not intrinsically interesting. (Thin slices of lobster alternating with slivers of peach, for instance: how can that be bad?) My corporate-sponsored friend had something called the Fantasy of Artisan Foie Gras, which consisted of half a dozen variations on the theme of fattened goose-liver, including a frothy foie gras milkshake. For an entree we had sweet-skinned duck, crispy on the outside, tender on the inside, glazed in lavender honey and carved rather theatrically by the table.

This whistle-stop summary does a disservice to chef Daniel Humm, who came out to make sure we were enjoying our meal: along with everyone else in the restaurant he didn’t appear to notice how poorly we were dressed. I should be combing the thesaurus for suitable adjectives for every one of those tiny hors d’oeuvres; it wouldn’t take me anywhere near as long as Humm or his staff spent creating them.

And that was just the beginning. I spent the weekend with my girlfriend’s family in Pebble Beach. At Pebble Beach they’ve got restaurants and they’ve got golf courses, and I don’t play golf. Poached salmon with artichoke hearts and shitake mushrooms. Surf-and-turf in which the surf consists of raw tuna and the turf of steak tartare. Surf-and-turf in which the surf consists of giant breaded shrimp and the turf of filet mignon. A chocolate bombe filled with chocolate ice cream, chocolate biscuit, caramel-covered Rice Krispies, and raspberries. On the way home we stopped at In-N-Out Burger, which is what we do when we have to drive more than a few blocks. I didn’t know it was possible, but by the time I got home, I was totally sick of eating delicious food all the time.

Which is why the first place I went after I got back was Herbivore.

Herbivore is a vegan restaurant. I hadn’t been there in years. I used to go a lot back when I was dating vegetarians; I don’t know if any of them were impressed. If you’re planning an evening at home with a vegetarian, you can order the food, then head across the street to Lost Weekend Video and choose a movie (make sure it’s a vegetarian movie), then get back and pick up your food. If you’re lucky the vegetarian will let you get some Ben & Jerry’s at the corner store.

Most of the dishes consist of pasta with vegetables or grilled vegetables over rice. Pesto sauce, peanut sauce, curry. I chose the shish kebab: mushrooms, onions, peppers, zucchini, yellow squash, tomatoes, and corncob slices, on wooden skewers, with lemon-garlic sauce. I asked for tofu; they gave me seitan instead. (For those not up on their meat substitutes, seitan is a tofu-like omnifood made of wheat gluten; I find it frighteningly dense.) It comes on brown rice, with a limp, underdressed little lettuce salad. It tasted like I remembered it: clean, elemental. If there’s a positively charged word for the opposite of luxury, it tasted like that: thrifty, maybe (although at $9.25 for a few vegetables and some rice, it’s kind of expensive). It’s good—good as far as grilled vegetables go, I guess, which is setting the bar pretty low.

I got a side of corn on the cob, which I remembered liking back in the day. Since it’s vegan, it doesn’t come with butter (it took me a minute of wondering why to remember where butter comes from) but instead with cayenne pepper and lemon juice, sharp rather than rich, which was just what I needed. Even deliciousness has its limits, and that’s when a little voluntary asceticism is in order.