What’s the best vegetarian food in San Francisco? I recently raved about State Bird Provisions, the best new restaurant in America according to Bon Appetit Magazine. But here’s the thing. The second time I went to SBP (review coming), I asked the waitress what restaurant she recommended, and without hesitation, she answered, “Rich Table“. Rich Table was also the recommendation of my friend Chef Dave Santos. Oh, and the James Beard Foundation has listed both SBP and Rich Table as semifinalists for best new restaurant. Dave Santos hooked me up with a last-minute reservation at Rich Table the day after I ate at SBP. If I had not been to one of these restaurants, I would easily say the other is the best restaurant I’ve been to in the last year. Having been to both within 24 hours, I really can’t say.I didn’t realize this, but as a result of Chef Santos’s connection, I had an “in” with the restaurant, and I think they literally brought me every single vegetarian item on the menu. (What you see above is just the first course.) So in the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I got a bunch of food comped.
I started with a glass of Cava, and then the bread (wild fennel levain with house cultured butter). I’d read that the bread here was a signature item–and I wasn’t disappointed. The thick-cut bread had a great crust, and the butter just put it over the top. My only regret was that there was so much great food that I couldn’t eat much of the bread!
Porcini Doughnuts! With cheese dip!
For my first course, I ordered porcini doughnuts with cheese dip. If you think that sounds amazing — you’re right. The doughnuts were basically a kind of fried dough that was savory instead of sweet. The dusting of porcini powder was nice and earthy, and the cheese dip added an extra bit of decadence.
What I had not counted on was getting basically every other vegetarian item as well! Above are the salted radishes with brown butter, which were surprising. I had expected the radishes to be bitter, but they were light, crunchy, and really good. In fact, if (when!) I return, I’d probably pick the radishes to start — they were delicious, and probably healthier than the doughnuts.
I also got the miso carrots, which — like the radishes — were amazing in their simplicity. The miso cured carrots tasted exactly like you’d expect: carrots plus miso. But sometimes the genius comes, not from a dish’s complexity, but its simplicity. The miso gave the carrots a nice kick. I wouldn’t have thought to order them if left to my own devices so I appreciated the taste.
Buttermilk panna cotta, sprouts, wheatgrass…
Around this time, I also got the “dirty hippie” (fitting for San Francisco, right?) This was a buttermilk panna cotta with a bunch of, well, hippie ingredients: sprouts, wheatgrass, some nuts and seeds… the intermezzo was creamy, fresh, and nutty. The sprouts were a great touch. I really loved this — it actually made me smile as I had it. I don’t know how they got the idea for this but hats off!
Cauliflower soup… with kimchi?
Next up was the cauliflower soup with kimchi. The soup, by itself, would have been bland and underwhelming, but the kimchi gave it the added spice and crunch that it needed. The soup also had some popped sorghum. If you don’t know what sorghum is — and I didn’t — it’s a grain that’s used in cereals
in some parts of the world. You learn something every day…
The next course was also something I hadn’t ordered — tagliatelle with artichokes, crispy sorrel, and house cultured butter. This seemed to be a mash-up of some of the other pasta courses on the menu. I loved the contrast of textures (crispy sorrel, soft pasta) and interesting flavors. The house cultured butter, made with yogurt, was quite tangy, and unexpected. The only negative note here is that this particular dish is not on the menu, so if you were just walking in, you wouldn’t know that you could get it.
Potatoes… a little too monotone.
The main course that I had actually ordered was the fingerling potatoes. Of all of the items I tried, this was actually a slight disappointment. The idea behind the dish was clever: several different preparations of potatoes, including some (for example, potatoes out of a puree gun) that are probably complex to put together. But fried, baked, and pureed potatoes are just not different enough to hold together as a dish. The entree was a bit one-note. I liked the white mustard seeds and the nettle, but they were not enough to elevate the potatoes. I sort of wished I had tried something else for my main course.
Next up was my “pre-dessert”, a blood orange gratinee with shaved ice show. This was fantastic. Particularly after the rather heavy potato dish, this was an amazing follow-up. This was bright, flowery, and light. Nice!
Sourdough bread pudding.
The dessert I ordered was a sourdough bread pudding with pistachio tuile and pomelo curd. The pistachio was kind of sticky, which I wasn’t expecting. The bread pudding was surprisingly light — well, not light, but it certainly wasn’t heavy, which you might expect. In part this was because of the pomelo curd on the side. Pomelo is a citrus fruit; the pomelo curd tasted sort of lemony and lightened up the dessert. Overall, it was quite good.
All in all, I was really impressed with Rich Table. Like I said, if I hadn’t been at SBP the day before, this would be my favorite recent restaurant. Rich Table is more of a “typical” restaurant — you order from a menu in pretty traditional fashion — so it’s almost an apples-and-oranges comparison to debate the two restaurants. But both are fantastic and well worth your time.
I thought the dishes here were really well composed. The creamy, almost velvety cauliflower soup was paird with spicy, crunchy kimchi and sorghum. The bread pudding was served alongside the lemony pomelo curd, which lightened it up. That’s why I was surprised and a bit disappointed with the potatoes — although they were good (and probably very challenging technically), they came off as fairly monotonous and not that exciting.
That’s a pretty minor quibble, though. Overall, Rich Table was a great experience. I like to try new restaurants when I travel to a new city, but I will be sorely tempted to go back to Rich Table next time I”m in town.
I think I had one of everything, literally.