Dining Out: Herbivore

When i lived in the bay area, herbivore was one of my regular spots—and one that i was hoping would join the list of bay area mini-chains moving into Sacramento. I’m not a vegetarian, but this was a consistently good spot to bring any of the many people i knew who were. Particularly my father, who went vegan after a heart attack more than a decade ago—and i’m happy to report, my dad is still going strong.

Herbivore, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to be. not that our meal at their Divisadero Street location in San Francisco was bad. it wasn’t. it’s just that when you talk a place up and it doesn’t deliver, it can be kind of embarrassing. Particularly when your audience is your girlfriend, and you say a dish is your favorite item at one of your favorite restaurants. the dish in question is the wasabi soba noodles ($8.45, plus $1 to add tofu). in my memory,

This dish had a stark, almost harsh flavor, befitting the green color of the sauce that covered the seared vegetables. It was the kind of thing you start eating, then wonder if you can continue, then realize you can’t stop as it starts tasting better and better— and you realize your mouth will start burning if you think about it too much.

This time around, it had a lemony, buttery, tangy flavor. all of which are fine t h i n g s— but please d o n ’ t mess with my wasabi soba noodles. It was like watching a namby-pamby sequel to a great indie movie—please don’t try to appeal to a wider audience.

Much better was the grilled portabello mushroom over polenta ($10.50). the polenta was a little more watery than i liked, but the flavor was good—especially the generous helping of portabello, which was rich and perfect.

Another positive was the “green” juice ($4.50 for a pint/large). it was so green it looked like it was a made of lawn clippings. it included celery, apple and spinach, but the dominant flavors were mint, lime and especially ginger. it had a nice tangy kick—and in this case, we were hoping for tangy.

We finished with the vegan German chocolate cake ($6.25). now here was an item that was actually better than i remember. When i’d had this before, it was tasty but so dense it seemed like it needed to be cut with a chain saw. This time it was more moist, and you’d never know it was vegan. So we left happy.

Another thing that seems to have changed at herbivore is that the service hasmproved. I used to frequent the Valencia Street location, which often seemed to feature slow service by someone who appeared fully formed from a thrift-store aisle. Years ago my visiting father got visibly annoyed at a dreadlocked waiter, who seemed to grow ever more glacial the more my dad complained. This time the service was fast, perfect and most notably, friendly. of course, the restaurant, which in my experience had always been crowded, was nearly empty at 6:30 on a Saturday night. Service, it appears, is getting better everywhere as the economy gets worse.

We wanted to get milkshakes at another vegan spot, café Gratitude, but ran out of time on this trip. cG appears to have shelved plans to open up a location in Sacramento until the economy gets better. Which i hope it does, because we could use more vegetarian/ vegan choices around here. So we’ll see if herbivore continues its eastward push and eventually ends up in this area. even if it’s not quite what it once was, it would be a welcome addition to Sacramento- if they fix the wasabi nodles.

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