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Alive (Vegan/Raw, San Francisco, CA)

December 19th, 2007 · by Cyndi · No Comments

(This review was written September 1, 2007)

I got the recommendation for Alive last year, when Michael and I were planning a special dinner for our first wedding anniversary. But I got very ill and we canceled. This year, our second anniversary, we found ourselves needing to be in San Francisco the day after our anniversary, with time to kill before evening rush hour was over. So off we went.

Not exactly a romantic celebration with a 2 year old along, but what can you do? I told Miriam we were going to a place with lots of fruits and vegetables and she spent all day excitedly asking where the vegetables were.

Alive Restaurant
1972 Lombard St
San Francisco, CA 94123
(415) 923-1052

Alive is a vegan raw restaurant tucked away in northern San Francisco, a very easy on and off to the Golden Gate Bridge. Parking is difficult, though the website shows some garages, but it’s not one of the busier areas, for cars or foot traffic.

The restaurant is small, very small. One padded bench along the side wall was half the seating for all but one table. There were 4 tables for 2 and 1 table for 6 (8 if cramped). On the other side of the room was a round table with 3 chairs (4 would fit only by blocking the walking space).

I’ll have to start with the negatives…for a place concerned about health, they are quite unhealthy. In that small space were a dozen or more paraffin candles, all lit and burning. Since the ceiling was high, this wasn’t so bad. The larger problem was the bathroom, which had an oversized blue candle with some sort of synthetic scent. It clung to me all evening.

As I ate my meal, I kept smelling that candle. I couldn’t figure it out. Then I realized it was on my hands. I never use soap in public places; I only washed my hands with water and rubbed them dry with a paper towel. I figured the paper towel had picked up scent from the candle. It was distracting and I was starting to get a migraine.

It wasn’t until most of the way through the meal that I discovered the smell was actually from the cloth napkins. They were all washed in some horrid scented detergent! What a shock. I’ve never seen that at a restaurant before. Usually places who care about the smell and taste of their food try hard not to have competing smells, especially synthetic and banal ones like detergent.

I asked for paper napkins and dipped them in my water glass to scrub my hands. But the damage was done. That detergent (and the bathroom candle) was all I could smell for the rest of the night. My head hurt, I was a bit spacey, and I know I didn’t get the full food experience I was paying for. Despite washing my hands with some water at the car, I had to smell that for the hour drive home. I was not in good shape when I arrived.

The food, at least, was pretty good. We shared everything and gave bites to Miriam on a separate plate. Service was very good and we had no trouble getting additional plates and bowls and etc as needed.

We had:

– Shitake Mushroom Miso Soup with Pumpkin (Hot, Cooked) $9.95

This was the one non-raw thing on the menu. It was good but simple. We needed something warming after spending some time in the San Francisco summer winds, and it did the trick. It wasn’t anything special though, just a basic broth with chunks of pumpkin and other vegetables.

– Rapini King Trumpet Mushroom Salad with an Almond Miso Sauce $9

A very nice salad. The dressing was quite good and there was a yeasty pungent flavor we couldn’t quite place that made the salad taste like it had blue cheese on it.

Alive does salads beautifully. Every ingredient is fresh and cut perfectly. Cutting vegetables doesn’t seem like a big deal, until you compare a basic salad with a well-done one. The salad had a mix of textures yet every piece was just the right size and wasn’t difficult to eat. You didn’t feel like you were chomping your way through rabbit food…it was delicate, crunchy, and fresh.

– Spicy Korean Chili Zucchini Ribbons with Seasonal Vegetables & Pinenuts $12

We were hoping for a noodle dish here, but it turned out to be another salad. The noodles (thin strips of zucchini) were there, but just a small layer on the bottom. It was a delicious salad, don’t get me wrong, but it left us feeling like we had a bunch of salad for dinner, with a couple of sides.

The dressing here was good but not particularly spicy. Miriam wanted more soup, but it was gone, so I gave her dressing in a bowl and she loved it. The dressing and the vegetable/nut mix were different from the first salad, but not so much that it felt like we were eating more than one dish.

– Sun Dried Tomato Shitake Mushroom Torte $15

I’m not sure what made this a torte, but at least it wasn’t salad. Here we had a base of crunchy nut cream (thick enough to stand on its own but not so thick that it set up like a quiche) with mushrooms and tomato puree on top. It was the only dish that felt like a meal. I liked it but it wasn’t anything special. It felt unfinished…like something I might make at home because I don’t have experience with the subtleties of raw “cooking.”

For dessert we shared:

– Almond Cheesecake (not on the online menu)

Very nice. And I felt like I was getting some protein here. The texture was amazing, like a medium to light cheesecake (no New York cheesecake here, but even places that use dairy and eggs can’t usually achieve that). The crust was incredible and I want that recipe! It was carrot based and I believe it had some nuts in it too. It had the texture of a gramhn cracker crust and a nice nutty flavor. The cheesecake was topped with a raspberry sauce that was rich and flavorful.

The cheesecake itself was good but, unfortunately, it had that same yeasty flavor the mushroom salad did. Michael didn’t mind it but I don’t like cheesecake that tastes like blue cheese (and, in this application, it tasted more like yeast than blue cheese). It didn’t keep me from polishing off my half, but it was distracting.

We only drank water (filtered or spring water at just the right temperature, slightly cooler than the air). One of the dishes, I’m not sure which, came with some seed crackers. Nice but not extraordinary.

All in all, I have to say I was disappointed. It’s not that the food was bad (indeed, I liked the food very much), but I was expecting so much more. I was lucky enough to have had a lunch catered by Roxanne’s (a now defunct vegan raw restaurant in Marin County) a couple of years ago. The food was sublime. Combinations you never would have thought of, with amazing textures and wraps from unusual sources. A lot of thought went into their food.

We chatted with the owners of Alive after our meal (since we arrived just after 5pm for dinner, we were the only customers). I asked a few questions about ingredients to pass along to my allergy-laden friends. The owner/chef (not sure who was who) said some things that surprised us.

This sort of food was “transitional,” he told us. Most raw foodists just eat salads. The food served here was generally only for people getting used to eating raw and for special occaisions. We found that odd. Of course almost no one eats daily with the special flourishes a good restaurant puts on their food. We generally simplify.

I’ve known raw foodists who eat nothing but whole fruits or vegetables or a few nuts. They never “cook.” And I’ve known raw foodists who love to create unusual and complex dishes on a regular basis. But I have never heard of anyone who is making a living with raw cooking but puts it down.

Unfortunately, this showed in the food. The energy, the love of cooking and food, the art that I saw in Roxanne’s food (even without going to the restaurant) was absent here. It’s not that they didn’t take care in preparing our meal; they did. It’s that the dishes were simple and without imagination. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s not what I was expecting.

Aside from the crackers and the cheesecake crust, nothing appeared to be dehydrated (not counting sun dried tomatoes), which is supposedly a hallmark of raw cuisine. The cheesecake and torte had been blended or food processed but pretty much everything else seems to have been just cut up. Expertly cut up, mind you, but nothing much else.

As for allergies…of course there is no meat, fish, eggs, or dairy here. No traces of it either. They use soy sauce and it is wheat-free. Their miso is wheat-free and they avoid gluten (barley in this case) too. Two of the dishes have some gluten in them but they can easily avoid it for anyone who asks. Soy is a bit harder but I believe the soy sauce was the only source and it may have only been in salad dressings.

Only one dish had oranges in it and I didn’t see a lot of citrus. I don’t think there were legumes beyond the soy sauce, and they don’t use grains. Because everything is made from scratch, you avoid preservatives, additives, and the staff can tell you what contains what.

Overall, I enjoyed the food and would happily eat it again, though I would balance the dishes better to have more things other than salad. The prices were a bit high for a regular meal though, and higher than seems reasonable to me for “lunch food.” You do need additional dishes to get a full meal and I was hungry a couple hours later, despite eating a decent lunch with protein in it.

I could not go back, however, until the restaurant addressed the chemical issue. Since it’s impossible to wash fragranced detergent smells out of fabric, this would mean waiting a year or two after they switched detergents so they could cycle through their napkins and get new ones. The scented bathroom is another issue, since the restaurant is a distance away from me, but it’s not as vital as being able to have a scent-free meal.


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