Sunday, March 7, 2010

Inviting and Approachable - The Vegan Cuisine of Real Food Daily (West Hollywood)

As a first time customer of a restaurant, the one thing you hope to encounter from the get-go is a sense of hospitality; is it inviting? Sadly, there are far too many establishments that seem to miss this most basic point. The hope for approachability - in terms of ambiance and cuisine - rings especially true when you're visiting a restaurant serving non-mainstream food. While you may not be as familiar with the ingredients or flavors, at least if an eatery can make the guests feel welcome, it goes a long way to helping one appreciate what the restaurant has to offer. And that's perhaps what Real Food Daily (West Hollywood) does best: Present a welcoming atmosphere and a clean, polished Vegan menu that's every bit as approachable as what you'd find in a non-Vegetarian equivalent.

After having seen Real Food Daily recommended numerous times over the past few years, I finally remembered to suggest it to my Vegetarian Hounds when we were driving up La Cienega one sunny afternoon. From the moment we stepped inside their West Hollywood location, we were greeted by a friendly host and seated immediately. The brightly lit interior and warm colors didn't hurt either. :)

Originally opened in 1993 in Santa Monica by Chef-Owner Ann Gentry, she eventually opened a second location in West Hollywood. Both locations are currently helmed by Chef Shelly Bojoquez, who's put together a very approachable menu of classic dishes from around the world, except that it's Vegan and Organic, items like Bolivian Samosas, Mexico City Tacos, Lentil-Walnut Pate, Fettucini Alfredo and more.

During my first visit, I begin with their Red Head (Beet, Carrot, Celery, Apple) with a Boost of Ginger Root.

It's very fresh and lightly sweet, with a seductive spiciness from the Ginger Root. It's a touch watered down (perhaps too much Apple or Water?), but maybe I'm just too used to the thicker, more satisfying Super Cleansing Cocktail at Mother's Market & Kitchen, which offers their version of this drink with Carrot, Apple, Celery, Beet, Parsley and Wheatgrass. But overall, the Red Head has turned into my favorite beverage at Real Food Daily. :)

Besides their regular menu, Real Food Daily offers up a few weekly specials that rotate in every few months. After trying their Hemp Nation (Hemp Seed Crusted Tofu, Asparagus, Shishito Peppers, Roasted Red Peppers, Cherry Tomatoes, Mizuna, Miso Rice Wine Vinaigrette), I sincerely hope this becomes a permanent menu item soon.

It's hard to get excited over Salads at times, but their Hemp Nation Salad is a creative, satisfying and completely engaging dish on multiple levels. It starts with the great choice to use Mizuna, a Japanese vegetable that's a little like Arugula or Watercress, but milder. And while the Shishito Peppers are a touch overcooked, they still provide a great, gentle heat (at times) to the Salad, along with the flavor interplay between the Asparagus and Roasted Red Peppers.

But what really sets this Salad apart (besides the vibrant vegetable combination listed above :) is the Hemp Crusted Tofu. There's a beautiful crisp crust that gives way to a clean, soft Tofu Soy flavor within. And the Toasted Hemp Seeds encrusting the Tofu give this very light nuttiness that's less earthy than nut equivalents. Mix in the perfect amount of Miso Rice Wine Vinaigrette (so that the Salad is thankfully not overdressed), and you have one of the most satisfying Salads around town. :)

I'm usually wary of dishes or restaurants with gimmicky names, but their Momma Mia Wotta Lasagna (Lasagna Noodles, Herbed Tomato Sauce, Roasted Vegetables, Tofu Cheese, Arugula, Fennel, Breakfast Radish Salad, Lemon Garlic Dressing, Pesto Croutons) came strongly recommended by our server, so I decided to give it a try.

And I'm so glad I did. There's a mouth-pleasing burst of Tomato with each bite, a good layering of Roasted Vegetables and properly cooked Lasagna pasta, but the most impressive aspect is the Tofu Cheese. I've tried different types of Vegan Cheeses over the years, and this would have to be one of the most surprising "cheesy" Vegan Cheeses I've ever had. It tastes like real Cheese and is nicely gooey and melting and delicious.

The only quibble with the dish is regarding the Arugula, Breakfast Radish Salad that comes with the Lasagna. The Arugula, Fennel and Radishes are bright and fresh, but the Lemon Garlic Dressing simply overpowers everything in its extreme tartness.

On another visit, I start with their Sweet Green (Cucumber, Celery, Parsley, Spinach with a splash of Apple). Despite its name, it's actually quite vegetal and woodsy and not really sweet. But for those looking for a fresh vegetable beverage, the Sweet Green satisfies the craving.

When eating vegetarian creations that mimic original meat-based dishes, there are bound to be hits and misses, with some recipes that taste almost as good (or better) than their meat-based counterparts, and others that fall short. Real Food Daily's Lentil-Walnut Pate (with Tofu Sour Cream, Wheat-Free Rice Sesame Crackers, Carrots, Celery) is a prime example of the former.

When trying a bit of the Lentil-Walnut Pate by itself, there's an enjoyable, pleasing quality to the creation; not too nutty or earthy (considering its two prime ingredients), there's a touch of textural grittiness (in a good way) that breaks up the otherwise smooth mouthfeel of the Pate. But the most mind-boggling part is when you take some of the Lentil-Walnut Pate and eat it with their Wheat-Free Rice Sesame Crackers: The combination of flavors changes into something akin to a lighter, cleaner real (meat-based) Pate! It's slightly mystifying and really impressive that Chef Ann and Chef Shelly have been able to create this taste from vegan ingredients.

Continuing on with the remarkable facsimiles, the L.A. Benedict (Poached Tofu, Roasted Tomatoes, Sauteed Spinach, Buttery Rustic Toast, Corn Hollandaise, Tempeh Bacon, Hash Browns) is something I never thought could be achieved with vegan cooking.

Sampling each facet of the L.A. Benedict by itself, it seems a little underwhelming: The Poached Tofu tastes like delicate, silken Tofu. The Corn Hollandaise is somewhat creamy, a little too runny, but sufficient. And the Buttery Rustic Toast is fine for what it is. However, when you combine all the ingredients into one bite - the Poached Tofu covered in the liquid Corn Hollandaise Sauce, the Tomatoes and Spinach atop the crunch of the Rustic Toast - the whole suddenly becomes far greater than the sum of its parts: It *tastes* like you're eating a real Eggs Benedict(!), albeit a slightly lighter version.

Complementing the experience is their Tempeh Bacon. Visually, their Tempeh Bacon looks a little freakish and nothing like real Bacon. But take a bite and you'll find that it has the brittleness of really crisped Bacon, and a salty savoriness and smokiness of Bacon as well.

Their Hash Browns are crisped and nicely executed. It arrives unsalted (so you can season it yourself), but it's a nice balance with the salty Tempeh Bacon. It was only after I was halfway through the L.A. Benedict with a bite of the smoky, salty Tempeh Bacon, a little bit of the crisped Potato Hash Browns that I realized that the Corn Hollandaise's runny quality was mimicking not only the normal Hollandaise Sauce, but also a broken Egg Yolk, combined together. Excellent. :)

Their Not-chos (Tortilla Chips, Melted Cashew Cheese, Black Beans, Pico de Gallo, Guacamole, Tofu Sour Cream, with Taco Mix) isn't as successful as their L.A. Benedict or Pate counterparts.

While many of the fundamental aspects in regular Nachos are Vegan (Pico de Gallo, Guacamole, Black Beans, Chips), it's in the replacement aspects that these Not-chos fall a little short. The Tofu Sour Cream is decent, the Taco Mix tries hard to give the sensation of eating seasoned "Ground Beef", but the Melted Cashew Cheese lacks the proper gooey, liquid-y sensation you want when eating real Nachos. It's not bad by any means, but not that good, either, and at almost $15 for this appetizer, you'd hope it was better.

Their Fettuccini Alfredo (Spinach Fettuccini, Creamy Alfredo Sauce, Roasted Red Peppers, Broccoli, Toasted Pine Nuts, Roasted Garlic Bread) arrives next.

While the produce tastes fresh and vibrant, and the Fettuccini Alfredo has a decent creaminess, there's no hint of cheesiness or buttery qualities which is at the heart of the original version of this dish. Of course it's Vegan, so it's to be expected that it might be missing something, but considering just how excellent their Lasagna is, it's disappointing that the Fettuccini doesn't come close to replicating the original, non-Vegan version. It's not bad, and it's certainly filling, but it just doesn't excite like the best dishes on the menu.

Probably one of the most challenging dishes on the menu would have to be the Plantation Savanna (Roasted Sweet Potatoes and Beets, Sweet Mustard Marinated Tempeh, Cucumber, Red Pepper, Toasted Almonds, Baby Spinach, Julienne Kale, Saffron-Orange Tahini Dressing).

This is a hefty, truly engaging Salad that requires your full attention. There are certainly "hefty Salads" around town that garner attention due to all the meat layered on top of them (Steak Salads, Lobster Salads, etc.), but the Plantation Savanna is truly ample and burly purely through its Vegetable content. While it may not sound that appealing, when you take a bite of Raw Kale, with some spring-like Cucumbers, big chunks of Sweet Potatoes and Beets, it's a texturally challenging Salad that has real structure and backbone to it. It's quite unique and standout for that reason and tastes pretty good to boot. :)

Next up is The Club "Triple Decker" (Seitan, Tempeh Bacon, Avocado, Lettuce, Tomato, Vegenaise, Sourdough Bread).

While I understand the reasoning to include a huge patty of Seitan in The Club Sandwich, the use of such a dense Mock Meat detracts from the dish as a whole. The Seitan is too thick, solid and doesn't come close to resembling the Chicken or Turkey it's supposed to replace. The rest of it is decent: I wish the bread was freshly toasted with crunch (but it arrives pre-toasted, cold and soft), and the rest of the Club Sandwich just lacks the textural contrast of a really good Club.

I'm not a fan of Mock Meats, but one of my guests is feeling like trying the Salisbury Seitan (Wheat Meat Cutlets, Mashed Potatoes, Golden Gravy, Caesar Salad).

For all of the organic produce and vibrancy and beautiful colors from many of Real Food Daily's dishes, their Salisbury Seitan probably is one of the most visually unappetizing dishes on the menu. The Mock Meat arrives in clean, straight, synthetic-looking triangles; sure it doesn't have to look like a real Salisbury Steak, but at least present the Seitan in a more appealing manner. But ultimately it's about the taste, and unfortunately the taste matches the looks: Slightly chewy, dense Mock Meat, covered in a decent Brown Gravy. It turns out the Mashed Potatoes with Gravy is the highlight of this dish, with the right balance of density, creaminess and earthiness.

The Caesar Salad is surprisingly enjoyable as well, somehow imparting a slight brininess and creaminess that makes it taste like a real Caesar Salad at times.

On my 4th visit, some of my Hollywood Hounds want to "detox" a bit, so off we go to RFD. :) We decide to start with their Sun-Dried Tomato Hummus (Homemade Chickpea Dip, Cucumbers, Toasted Pita Tips).

I was hoping for something as wonderful as their Lentil-Walnut Pate, but instead the Hummus is a touch dried out and quite compact, resembling more of a really thick paste than any Hummus I've had before in the past. There are some nice notes of Sun-Dried Tomatoes with every bite, but it's not something I'd order again.

Probably the most disappointing item on the menu is their Pizza You Can Eat-za (Herb Corn Meal Crust, Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto, Tomatoes, Spinach, Basil, Melted Cashew and Mozzarella Cheeses, Sauteed Daily Greens & Cannelini Beans).

I should've seen the warning signs (besides the ridiculous name): It's already challenging enough making an Organic and Vegan version of Pizza, but then the menu also lists this "Pizza" as being Wheat-Free, Gluten-Free and Yeast-Free. Something had to give, and sadly, it's everything about this dish except the noble words written on the menu. :(

Firstly, it looks absolutely *nothing* like Pizza; it actually looks kinda scary, like a Raw Vegan creation of some sort (but the menu states that Pizza comes with "Melted Cashew and Mozzarella Cheeses"). Beyond that, trying to pick up a "slice" of this "Pizza" fails miserably: The crust is too soft (extremely soft), and everything on top of the slice of Pizza falls off as the crust begins to crumble immediately under the weight of just trying to pick it up. The unmelted "Cheese" is also off-putting; perhaps they just didn't cook it long enough?

And lastly, but most importantly, the taste: While the description sounds lovely with Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto, Spinach, Basil and Tomatoes
(and I love Vegetable Pizzas more than Meat-based ones), you really just taste a super-soft, mushy, saucy mess with Tomato essence. There are no Pesto or Basil or Spinach flavors coming through at all.

On the positive side, the Sauteed Chard with Cannelini Beans is delicious: Perfectly cooked through Chard, with nice bursts of earthiness from the Beans spread throughout the greens.

Finally, we order their Supreme Burrito, Wet (Spanish Rice, Black Beans, Tempeh Bacon, Cashew Cheese, Avocado, Onions, Peppers, Lettuce, Tomato, Tofu Sour Cream, Ranchero Sauce).

I normally don't order Burritos, but my guests are craving one, and it's surprisingly bland: It tastes like a mound of Sauteed Vegetables combined together into a huge gloppy mess. :( There are chunks of Tempeh Bacon, but buried within all these wet ingredients, the Tempeh Bacon turns into soggy, hard "chunks" of saltiness, losing all of its wonderful crunch and brittleness when served in other dishes on the menu. They should consider using a Soy Chicken or some other Mock Meat that can withstand all the wet vegetables buried together in this massive Burrito. At least the Wheat Tortilla is really fragrant.

During all 4 of my visits, the service has been consistently friendly and welcoming. I've read about some service and hospitality issues, but I've been lucky to have never run into those problems. I've never been to Real Food Daily when they were completely swamped, so maybe that had something to do with it. Prices range from $4.25 - $16.95, with most entrees around ~$13 or so. We averaged about ~$30 per person (including tax and tip) for each of our visits.

While there are some real disappointments, but also some really enjoyable dishes, Real Food Daily (West Hollywood) should be commended for creating a 100% Vegan Restaurant that's attractive to Vegans and Carnivores alike. The inviting ambiance, decor and familiar-sounding dishes (Vegan substitutes of classic mainstream dishes) makes Real Food Daily an enjoyable stop from time-to-time. While it seems like their best items are on their rotating weekly specials menu (Hemp Nation Salad and Momma Mia Lasagna), Real Food Daily succeeds in providing a clean, bright, welcoming restaurant to get a healthy and (sometimes) tasty meal.

Rating: 6.9 (out of 10.0)

Real Food Daily (West Hollywood)
414 N. La Cienega Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90048
Tel: (310) 289-9910

Hours: 7 Days A Week, 11:30 a.m. -10:00 p.m.
Sunday Brunch, 10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.


Gastronomer said...

I've perused the menu at the SaMo location a few times but was always hesitant due to the high prices. Your mostly positive report makes the place sound like its worth a visit. Who doesn't like "real food"?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Gastronomer,

I agree about the prices. It's a little pricey compared to other vegan restaurants around town, but their rent probably factors a good deal into it. What's the primary interest in RFD? Is it the location in Santa Monica? Or just wanting to try a new Vegan restaurant?

If it's the latter, I'd recommend trying Shojin or Rahel before RFD. Let me know how it goes. :)

Anna A. said...

Mmmmm I still have not made it to RFD. I am fasting now from any bleeding animal products so I need to hit this up. I will be sure to order the red head and lentil walnut pate. Thanks for your post, as always =)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anna A,

Thanks. :) I hope you enjoy your visit to RFD. You might also consider trying Shojin and Rahel if you're looking for some vegan restaurants. Enjoy~

burumun said...

I went to the RFD in SaMo a couple of years ago w some vegetarians (they recommended the place) and like you, although I found some dishes didn't quite work, I liked the place overall.
Never had the reason to go back though, so I didn't. I'm a carnivore through and through :P

Exile Kiss said...

Hi burumun,

Ah, sounds like you had a similar experience. It's a nice enough place, and if my friends want to go, I'll go, but there are better Vegan places I enjoy more. Thanks.

Noah said...

Great job. It's been a while since I've been to RFD. Maybe it's time for another visit.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Noah,

Thanks. RFD definitely has its strong points (with some misses). If you see the Hemp Nation Salad or Mama Mia Lasagna being offered, order it. :)

Mr Taster said...

Aw shucks, my Lovely Tasting Assistant and I live around the corner from RFD. Too bad I missed the festivities-- I too haven't been to RFD in an absurdly long time, but every time I go I am surprised by how tasty the food is. I don't know why we don't go there more often.

Mr Taster

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Mr Taster,

Nice. :) I'm glad you and your LTA enjoy RFD so much. :) It's a healthy alternative to many eateries around town, and some of their items are really well done.

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