I Am Infuriating

Cafe Gratitude's raw vegan fare is wildly inventive, but the staff doesn't practice what it preaches — and preaches.

If you’re naturally averse to the whole vegan-raw-foods ethos, you’ll probably hate Cafe Gratitude. The new Berkeley restaurant’s Mediterranean plate, for example, is described as “live walnut-almond falafels served with sprouted almond-sesame seed hummus, spicy olive tapenade, seasoned almond toast, and cucumber tzatziki salad.” And you’ll have a field day with the restaurant’s real quirk: The name of every dish begins with “I am … ” The abovementioned plate is called I Am Flourishing. Pizzas are I Am Open-Hearted (spicy mole), Sensational (pesto), or Passionate (marinara). The servers affirm your order by announcing, “You are flourishing,” etcetera. Your meal won’t last as long as the “I am” jokes.

But if you’re open to a meal in which most of the ingredients aren’t heated above 115 degrees F — something to do with keeping the enzymes intact — and in which the chewy and fulsome are replaced with the crisp and vegetal, you’ll probably enjoy Cafe Gratitude’s creative, fresh, colorful fare.

You won’t be alone. The restaurant (in the old Fontina space) is actually the third in a local chain owned by Matthew and Terces Englehardt, whose first restaurant opened in San Francisco in 2004. The Englehardts’ vegan-friendly reputation apparently preceded them. On opening day, there was reportedly a line out the door, and two months later it has barely begun to dwindle.

The cafes are just part of the Englehardts’ philosophy of “being abundance,” which the restaurant’s manager describes as “a practice of keeping attention on the fact that you’re always provided for by the universe.” The couple has led workshops on abundance for years, and designed The Abounding River, a board “game” about affirmation. You’ll find Abounding River cards at every table and the game, along with raw-foods products, at the store near the register.

After a number of lovely, fascinating meals at Cafe Gratitude’s original San Francisco location, I was looking forward to trying the new outlet. The owners have a gift for creating quirky, comfortable spaces in that 1970s mold of plants, wood, brick, and stained glass. In other hands the Berkeley branch’s brick-on-brick interior might come off as a dank cellar, but here it feels like a rec room for the pleather-and-tattoos crowd, with blowups of Frank Riccio’s colorful Abounding River illustrations ringing the walls.

Most customers seem to be having a good time (not me, but more on that later). The crowd, mostly under thirty, tends to be self-selecting — carnivores and haters out! — and diners nestle up against strangers at large communal tables. When there’s a birthday party, the staff comes around to dance and whoop to the Beatles’ “You Say It’s Your Birthday!” By the fifteenth party of the night, it begins to feel like a Hare Krishna hoedown.

The Englehardts’ all-organic food is the closest Berkeley may ever get to the molecular gastronomy of El Bulli, Alinea, or even San Francisco’s Winterland. The un-cooks puree cashews into nut milk, then culture it into a tangy, tasty approximation of sour cream. Buckwheat and sunflower seeds are soaked and pureed and dehydrated into pizza crusts with a texture somewhere between RyKrisps and whole-wheat toast. Spinach undergoes a similar process, emerging as chlorophyll-rich paper. Sheer astonishment at the chefs’ innovation, and the fact that what they produce is often better than edible, ensure that both herbivores and open-minded omnivores will enjoy the food.

For me, the highlights have been I Am Thankful, a cool coconut-milk soup sparked up with Thai curry powder, bright cherry tomatoes, and cilantro, and the I Am Insightful samosas, which encase a spicy, rich sesame-almond paté in the aforementioned spinach paper. The food can be heavy on the nuts and seeds, so you may want to order I Am Satisfied — a salad plate of mixed greens and shredded vegetables with a fig-balsamic vinaigrette, or the more robust and unusual I Am Giving salad with marinated shredded kale and sea vegetables.

The I Am Vivacious avocado stuffed with sunflower seed paté was monotonously unctuous, and there was something mucilaginous about the flaxseed chips that kept me from finishing my I Am Honoring nachos. But the I Am Cheerful covered a cumin-spiked walnut- and pumpkin-seed “live burger” with a smoky tomato sauce and pickled cucumbers, which is a whole lot to taste. Likewise, the pizzas — either with the spicy chile-coconut mole or the sun-dried tomato “marinara” and black olives — had big flavors, which are hard to achieve when you can’t stew down the ingredients or add bacon, and the textural play between creamy sauces and the different kinds of crunchiness was well balanced. My favorite was an I Am Elated enchilada of almond-daikon puree wrapped in spinach paper and slathered with cashew cream and spicy avocado-tomatillo salsa verde. Plus, the enchilada came with cooked Bhutanese rice, which, like the hot tea and beer Cafe Gratitude serves, says that the Englehardts aren’t doctrinaire about the raw thing.

The desserts sell out so quickly that I can’t pass judgment — preorder the moment you walk in the door — but the smoothies offer guaranteed pleasure. Of course, I like almond milk, thickened with ground nuts and sweetened with pureed dates. I also like grilled pig guts. But all my guests enjoyed their food.

Still, here are several things that infuriated…er, several teaching moments:

• Call me a hater, but the constant, forced affirmation infantilizes the customer. Like the birthday ritual, it’s sweet but soon grows cloying.

• The Berkeley kitchen is still not as consistent as its SF counterpart. Made-to-order items such as the bruschetta were frequently underdressed or underseasoned, two mistakes you can’t afford to make with a plate of raw vegetables.

• One of the elements that made the original restaurant so appealing was its casual but effective waitstaff. The Berkeley waiters and hosts are welcoming enough, but on my first visit provided the second-worst service I have ever experienced. Our warm, smiling waitress lost our order, proved impossible to hail, lied to us about the mistake, then kept getting distracted and making more errors. Three hours after we walked through the door, she finally dropped off a check indicating she wasn’t going to comp a single dish to make amends. Several weeks later, a second server also had mastered the “I’m not going to catch your gaze” brush-by, concentrating her charm on a bigger-money table while our menus, and then food, drinks, and empty plates languished in all the wrong places.

For this, the management is to blame. If you’re going to charge $25-and-up per person, I’d suggest you train your staff in customer-service basics and hire an abundance of bussers and food runners. Any restaurant that tells its customers they’re marvelous, amazing, and divine had better be prepared to treat them as such.

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