What was that whitish and nearly translucent vegetable, sliced into thick tugboat-shaped wedges, that arrived lightly cooked and tossed with chunks of instantly recognizable carrot and somewhat less welcome daikon? Tasting a bit like celery, a bit like artichoke only earthier, more subterranean, with a fibrous almost-crunch, it gave evidence of being some alien kind of tuber. A glance at the chalkboard bearing that day’s lunch menu at Manzanita — one of two new vegan restaurants on the Oakland-Emeryville border — bore out that suspicion. It was burdock. Known as gobo in Japan, where shavings of it are commonly used to flavor broths, burdock is seldom seen on American plates. Nor is daikon, for that matter, or parsnips or kale — all staples at Manzanita, where they come steamed, stir-fried, or simmered, and seasoned ever so subtly to ease away the assertive rootiness and bitterness that make them so much less popular in these parts than, say, potatoes or even Brussels sprouts.
But there’s something about vegans — at least the stereotypical ones — that makes them want to love what others shun, to champion the downtrodden and uplift the underrepresented or maligned varieties of produce. It goes with the joke that asks: How many vegans does it take to screw in a lightbulb? It takes three: One to do it, one to read the package very carefully, and a third to scrutinize the proceedings with a dour expression. In the outside world, vegans — who eschew all animal products in their diet — have a reputation for self-righteous sanctimony that makes even egg- and milk-swilling vegetarians look Rabelaisian by comparison. During a Dateline interview last year after the death of Atkins Diet creator Dr. Robert Atkins, his widow Veronica Atkins lambasted the outspoken vegans who were denouncing her late husband’s meaty, cheesy regimen. She called them “the vegetarian Taliban.”
In which case she would raise her hackles at the stack of radical magazines I found near Manzanita’s cash register, left behind by a patron and packed with articles about liberating lab animals and setting fire to fascists’ homes. She might quake in fear seeing the multipierced, black-clad group of diners — who look a lot like Black Bloc anarchists — settling in for a late lunch at one of several long, refectory-style tables in Manzanita’s cavernous interior, where a few suspended Japanese textiles soften the garage-y ambience a bit, but only a bit. And what would Mrs. Atkins say about the fat plastic baby doll’s arm worn as a hair ornament by the man who brought us our lentil soup, tofu cubes tossed with winter squash, yam-celery-parsnip combo, and baby greens with tart, paper-thin apple slices tucked deftly into the frisée and arugula?
Lunch and dinner menus here change daily. Diners can either order à la carte off the chalkboard or choose the day’s prix-fixe option, whose number of dishes varies, but which always features a protein dish, a serving of whole grains, and assorted all-vegetable sides. A third option is the “simple meal,” a triumvirate of beans, brown rice, and veggies.
Manzanita’s space was occupied for twenty years by the Organic Cafe, which closed in 2003. Longtime landlord George French, who after years of cafe meals had become a convert, decided to open his own all-organic vegan outfit in its place. Earthquake retrofitting and other obstacles took more than a year, and Manzanita opened in January.
In keeping with the macrobiotic maxim that too much spice overstimulates the nervous system and numbs the taste buds, many of the dishes devised and prepared by Manzanita’s mainly Tibetan kitchen staff are so subtly seasoned as to strike garlic-and-chipotle-callused palates as not seasoned at all. Salt, soy sauce, miso, and sesame make a delicate showing in the velvety soups that are this restaurant’s star turn, and they distinguish the hearty bean- and tofu-based main courses. But they are hardly detectable in numerous vegetable mélanges whose earnest plainness, depending on your mood and allegiances, evokes either Zen monks or zombies (they aren’t allowed to eat salt, you know), either purity or poverty. I’m good for you, just as I am! these dishes declare, making you feel profligate and guilt-stricken for eyeing your table’s soy-sauce dispenser and jar of gomashio — Japanese-style toasted and ground sesame seeds mixed with sea salt, a macrobiotic staple.
Precepts governing the cuisine at nearby Supreme Vegan are nutritional but also Biblical — namely, Genesis 1:29, in which God announces: “Behold, I have given you every herb-bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.” Owners Robert and Joy Williams and their grown children — Jamila, Imani, Aisha, and Joseph — are members of the African Hebrew Israelite community, a group that claims to be descended from ancient Hebrews who, after being driven from Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70, made their way to West Africa, thence much later to America as slaves. In 1967, based on a vision directing them to retrace their ancestors’ journey, four hundred members of the group left America for Liberia, where they spent two years before traveling on to Israel. Today some two thousand live there in the desert town of Dimona — observing such holidays as Passover and Shavuot, circumcising their sons, wearing only natural fabrics, and maintaining a strict, preservative-free vegan lifestyle. Robert Williams was formerly a chef at African Hebrew Israelite-affiliated vegetarian restaurants in Atlanta and Chicago, where his family first developed a line of ginger-based juices now served at Supreme Vegan, which also opened in January.
It’s a slip of a place, about sixteen by twenty feet with five tiny tables and a counter, the walls hung with bold paintings of Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu. To reach the restroom, you have to go out the front door, walk around the side of the building, and re-enter through a gate at the back. But a spunky ingenuity spikes the menu here, a playfulness with flavors and textures that compensates — or almost does, or doesn’t quite, depending on your hunger level — for the smallish portions and not-so-speedy service.
To assemble lunch plates, dinner plates, and salad plates, diners select any three items from three sets of choices, which are changed frequently. The salads range from a mustardy, celery-studded chopped-tofu dish that could pinch-hit pleasantly for potato salad, to a dense scoop of couscous rich in sesame oil and striped with mellow basil, to an East-West surprise in which dried bean curd — the kind Chinese groceries sell in hard, wrinkly sheets — has been flaked, rehydrated, and tossed with shredded vegetables for a chewy-crunchy effect that makes the portion size all the more poignant and frustrating. Carbs are in rather short supply here, resulting in starch-withdrawal shock for diners accustomed to filling out their meatless meals with heaps of rice, slabs of bread, or baked potatoes.
Main courses maintain the cultural fusion, employing largely Asian ingredients to effect light vegan versions of Southern and Caribbean standbys — seitan twists with housemade barbecue sauce, for instance; and fried tofu wedges so white and creamy-soft inside their thin, herbed, golden batter as to evoke fish cakes, an impersonation enhanced by the relishy tartar sauce served on the side. Dressed with mock mayo and sprouts, the tofu burger is dauntingly dainty inside its fluffy bun. For the same price, the much heartier veggie burger is a thick potato-onion-carrot patty with sweet pickles, lettuce, and lashings of ketchup. In side dishes, main dishes, and salads, vegetables are sweet and tender-crisp — from the baby corn tossed with broccoli to the chard tossed with silky sun-dried tomatoes. The ginger drinks, infusions of fruit and cane juices and herbal teas with the familiar rhizome, are sweet if eye-poppingly bracing; ginger’s sharp salutary kick also balances the deep richness of the crusts supporting Supreme Vegan’s sweet-potato and banana-tofu-creme pies.
It is a cliché of suburban life to bemoan the mushroomlike proliferation of fast-food outlets in any given neighborhood. But what’s sprouting within a couple of miles along AC Transit’s F-bus route? Vegan eateries. Now that’s a brave new world if ever there was one.