The number of Bay Area plant-based restaurants contracts more than it expands. Although Greens is still going strong, Gracias Madre recently closed in San Francisco’s Mission District. In the East Bay, Temescal’s Kitava opened earlier this year as the restaurant most likely to remind visitors of Cafe Gratitude, which closed in Berkeley back in 2015. Kitava’s menu forefronts plant-based dishes but also includes bowls of sesame chicken or tuna poké.
With the arrival of Susan Virgilio’s Blossom & Root, plant-based diners can not only rejoice in her philosophical approach to eating healthy meals but also in the way her chef, Jen Sopinski, manifests that vision on the plate. From a light and creamy gazpacho ($10) to a substantial poké vegetable bowl ($24), the dishes easily rival similar fare at restaurants like Greens and Millennium.
Eight years ago, when one of her daughters became vegan, Virgilio began cooking vegan meals for her family. “Everyone was extremely grateful because I am way better with lentils or chickpeas than I ever was with chicken or beef,” she said. Over time the flavor profiles became more interesting and the Virgilio family’s diet incorporated more options for dinner. That they all began feeling healthier was an unexpected benefit.
Opening her own restaurant was part of Virgilio’s own personal evolution. No matter what season is at hand, people in Danville love to go out to eat. When the six Virgilios did, they often found as few as three plant-based options on a menu and sometimes only one, as an afterthought. “They’d take all the good stuff off the salad and give us the leaves,” she said. Or, the vegan options remained the same year after year.
Blossom & Root is located in a landmark downtown building. “I tell people I’m in the little red hotel, and they know exactly where it is,” Virgilio said. Irish immigrants who built the railroad that ran from Pleasanton to Walnut Creek lived in the building before it became a hotel and then a restaurant. “Another draw is, I wanted people to feel like they were coming into a house, like you were coming into my home,” she said.
The interior walls of Blossom & Root are covered in a riot of cheerful, if competing, wallpapers. Devotées of Laura Ashley’s plush floral prints will delight in the abundance everywhere of petals, stems, vines, branches and leaves. Brightly colored bottles line the shelves of the centrally located kitchen, where diners can observe the chef up close. The spirit of a comfy, Gilded Age tearoom has been summoned up in these dining rooms.
The robust beverage menu features beer, cider and wine, and the cocktails and mocktails are made by a resident mixologist. I tried a fizzy, refreshing cucumber mint “nojito” ($8) and took a sip of the seasonal shrub ($8) with a dash of elderflower syrup. Both beverages were adorned with thick copper straws and decorated with a sprig of mint or a thinly sliced spiral of cucumber.
The gazpacho looked freshly puréed, tomato-red with circular drizzles of a lemon crema and balsamic vinegar. The flavor held herbs and spices in balance, neither overpowering with heat nor bland.
Entrées, listed as “Large Plates,” include a masa cake mole verde, grilled vegetable pasta, a crispy maitake sandwich, a creamy herb farro and a burger made with chickpeas, black beans and shitake mushrooms. Virgilio believes there’s a place for Impossible Burgers and the like in plant-based dining, but she wanted Blossom & Root “to focus on and celebrate the vegetable, the fruit, the legumes.”
The mushroom steak salad ($28) was a mix of little gems and radicchio, watermelon radish, fennel, fried onions, and blue cheese crumbles and cherries, with grilled maitake mushrooms. My favorite dish was the summer poké ($24), with its exceptional housemade ponzu dressing. Every vegetable in the bowl was lovely to look at and even better to eat.
Blossom & Root, 411 Hartz Ave., Danville. Open for dinner Wed-Thur 5–8:30pm, Fri-Sat 5–9pm, Sun 5–7pm. 925.854.2059. blossomandrootkitchen.com.