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Vegi with a Vengeance

[whitespace] Valentine's Cafe
David Fortin

Domestic Domain: Valentine's Cafe is a cozy, casual neighborhood restaurant with distinctive vegetarian cuisine.

Vegetarian disbelievers may well be impressed by the breadth of taste at Valentine's Cafe

By Paul Adams

Valentine's Cafe is a vegetarian bistro in Noe Valley. San Francisco has, of course, a number of ethnic vegetarian restaurants, but there is also a small double handful of, shall we say, California vegetarian restaurants, whose dishes are original ideas or clever reworkings of borrowed flavors. Among these restaurants, it could be argued, a distinctive vegetarian cuisine is being forged. Valentine's is one of these.

It's very small, with blue and green walls for a change, and evenly dim lighting. There's a pleasantly domestic, neighborhood feel, with a yellow awning, window boxes, tables out front, a dog logo and pictures of animals happily not being eaten on the walls. Reservations aren't accepted, but the wait is rarely long. Prices are quite reasonable and the atmosphere is casual.

At the majority of restaurants it's sufficient, and easy enough, to just select from the menu a starter and an entree that sound compatible. At Valentine's, though, attention must be paid to avoid clashing the one with the other: Tempting as both the Thai curry soup and the Italianate red-pepper pasta may sound, wouldn't it be strangely uncomplimentary to have them together?

This peril isn't too difficult to avoid, though. There are good matches and the food is delicious, particularly the specials. There is a daily soup, salad, pasta, and four-grain risotto. The seasoning of some of the dishes approaches genius. Recently the soup was an excellently soothing noncreamy mushroom one with red wine, full of flavor and floating mushroom slices. A salad special was delicate savory seared endive, vernal with blood-orange chunks and tiny bursting tomatoes. Another outstanding appetizer is the kabocha squash cakes with Japanese kimchee: soft, tingly and so nice. They also have tasty fritters and a tartly lime-flavored roast eggplant dish dressed with thin vegan sour cream, cilantro and many peanuts.

Entrees include a Cajun-style red bean cake in thin spicy tomato sauce with hearty cooked dark greens and a large salade nicoise served with mild vegan aioli. (The vegan ersatz dairy things here are not entirely delicious.) There is a pasta paprikas, also with vegan cream, which could have been much more flavorful. The portobello scallopine, though, served on a polenta cake, was rendered wonderfully rich and robust by its garlicky sauce and the mushrooms' natural heartiness. Roasted carrot pappardelle, a recent pasta special, was surprisingly delicious and covered with meaty nuts.

Vegan desserts are always troublesome, but Valentine's handles the problem smoothly. There's a chocolate torte with pecans and a mapley flavor, possibly too sweet but certainly tasty. The Southern Comfort cake is raisin-studded and rich, with a very nice intense bourbon sauce (keep your eye on bourbon sauce: experts say it's making a comeback). And good gelati (not vegan, although not as pointedly lush as a menu's lone dairy dessert might be), and an apple/pear crumble whose hot fruit tastes like it was macerated in tea.

The wine list is small but decent, yet the issue of flavor-matching comes up again here: it's almost impossible to pick a single wine to match everyone's food, since all the dishes are so different. It's probably best to order by the glass or cheerfully throw harmony to the wind.

So Valentine's can be a treat, particularly for vegetarians but really for anyone. Be discriminating in your order--almost all the dishes are intensely flavored and inclined to internecine bickering. But it's a good restaurant for a casual date, or something.

Valentine's Cafe, 1793 Church St., 415/285-2257.

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From the May 18-31, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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