The fabulous view.
Grilled Delta asparagus.
Wilted spinach salad.
Artichoke and sunchoke gratin.
30 years is no slouch in restaurant years, a notable number ~GREENS~ attained in 2009. Fortunately this significant birthday inspired a light updating of the décor at this famed vegetarian restaurant—it felt a little tired the previous time I visited, so I was happy to see new carpeting, a fresh paint job, and new handmade chairs are reportedly on their way. I wouldn’t say it’s a brand-new pair of red Birkenstocks, however—it’s more like they just got resoled.
The view remains ever-stunning—you can see the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance, and boats bobbing in the marina. To be expected, it’s especially breathtaking at sunset. A friend even saw a pretty starfish kicking it on a rock below, awww. And I liked my little vase of fresh flowers on the table. It’s like you just smoked a nice spliff, it’s all so pleasant. But this is what happens when The San Francisco Zen Center opens a restaurant.
You’ll see a lot of people hanging around in the waiting area amidst large gnarled pieces of wood and a curving bar, almost like they’re hiding in the forest, but it’s just because guests aren’t seated unless their party is complete. The spacious dining room is busy (sometimes too busy for servers to keep up with, it seems) and offers quite the hodgepodge of excellent people watching, from the expected middle-aged women in frumpy dresses and no make-up (with their errant professor-type husbands), to families with well-behaved tykes, to European tourists, to young couples on a nice date. So no, it’s not like dining at one big Be-In, but it’s not like you’re going to hear some Euro-house boutique music on the soundsystem, either.
Chef Annie Somerville presides over this dining room with a thoughtful, nurturing touch. And I have a feeling all those years of eating organic vegetables from The Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm contribute to her cheerful and shiny disposition. Since the menu is obviously hyper-seasonal, let me just say it: now is the time to dine there. Sure, winter has marvelous root vegetables, but to taste some of the best springtime produce in its prime, this is it. And summertime? Equally memorable.
The presentation of the grilled Delta asparagus ($11) was all about showcasing the spears simply, resting on a scattering of mache and Niçoise olives, with a shaving of Andante Dairy Etude cheese on top (what’s not to love?), and a bright Meyer lemon vinaigrette.
The salad that really knocked my hemp socks off (and just in case you think that’s all you’ll be eating for your meal here, there are actually only two salads on the menu) was the wilted spinach salad ($9.50 or $11). It was perfectly dressed with sherry vinegar and hot oil, but the bright spinach still maintained its perky texture—backed up with the crunchy croutons. The additional salty notes from the feta and Gaeta olives, along with the punch of mint and red onions made this a dream salad in my book (I am so going to get the recipe).
Unfortunately the little gems salad ($9.50 or $11) with avocado, watermelon radish, jicama, pumpkin seeds, and chili-lime vinaigrette sounded like it was going to rock the casa, but it was too subtle and modulated—it needed a bit more salt and dressing to come together (right now, over me).
Main courses include the satisfying rosemary crêpe ($24), triangles stuffed with savoy spinach, rainbow chard, leeks, and goat cheese. The edges were a touch crisp instead of supple, but with one bite of the accompanying Meyer lemon cream, all was good. The colorful side of roasted fingerlings and carrots tasted garden-fresh, and the minty grilled artichoke hearts made this a substantial plate (just in case you were wondering about the $24 price tag).
It’s funny how a dish can sound rather boring, and end up being so delicious. (If only dating ads followed this paradigm.) The mesquite-grilled brochettes ($17 single, $21 two) hardly registered a blip on my “I gotta try that” meter, but fortunately my dining companion steered me to try them. Cubes of tender Hodo Soy tofu, plump mushrooms, yellow finn potatoes, red onion, bell pepper, yam, and fennel are all given a flavorful push with a drizzle of saucy charmoula (a savory marinade of herbs and spices), which also went well with the side of quinoa with cherry almonds. While the mesquite grilling reminded me of barbecue parties in the summer, I honestly didn’t miss the steak. Well, a little. Don’t tell Annie.
The artichoke and sunchoke gratin ($23.50) with tomatoes, peppers, spring onions, and Asiago sounded richer than it was—and it smelled so good that it made me grab my fork with gusto. The layered round was topped with a golden fromage blanc custard, and a roasted pepper sauce on the plate brought a nice acidity. We also got to tuck into more asparagus, this time it was presented with lemon oil. This was definitely my favorite of the three mains we tried, and one that any “it ain’t dinner without meat” diner would find to be a satisfying and delicious main course.
While some vegetarian places fall into the trap of “there’s no meat, so let’s add five more ingredients that don’t need to be in the dish,” Greens keeps things simple and harmonious, letting the organic ingredients shine. It also doesn’t get tossed into the pan-Asian/fusion wok (“let’s have sesame oil and soba noodles and ginger all over the menu!”). While there are some spring rolls, enchiladas, and an Indian sampler on the eclectic menu, the flavors for each dish are authentic and stand on their own instead of being fused with other cuisines.
Dessert featured the transitioning season, from the rhubarb galette with almond streusel and a rustic crust, to the fluffy Meyer lemon cheesecake with Minneola caramel sauce (genius) and tangy citrus supremes (both $8.75). Go ahead and finish with some tea—it fits the vibe, right? (Some neighboring diners were oohing over their chai with chocolate.) The wine list was also chock full of excellent small producers, complete with mostly organic selections, natch. But they don’t take the local thing too seriously, because you’ll find plenty of European wines on the list as well.
If you have some out-of-town guests coming to the city, Greens is a choice place to give them a view and a farmers’ market-fresh experience in one fell swoop. Parking in the Fort Mason lot is also a snap (and inexpensive). A tip: there is a semi-private table for six in an alcove in the back, so request it if your group fits that size. There’s also a spacious private dining room that provides quite the setting for big parties. And if you’re going for a walk along Crissy Field during the day, you can swing by the updated Greens To Go counter inside for some healthy breakfast or lunch treats (no need to say, “hold the turkey”).