Amidst a Diversity of Vegetables, Meat Isn’t Missed
November 2005 – Don’t go to Greens looking for soybean wienies or tofu turkey. San Francisco’s best-known vegetarian restaurant isn’t interested in serving faux meat. Chef Annie Somerville will serve tofu on occasion, “but we’ve never tried to make it look or taste like meat. We celebrate vegetables as themselves, not as meat substitutes.”
Located in the city’s historic Fort Mason Center overlooking San Francisco Bay, Greens is a 130-seat destination for the city’s sophisticated diners, regardless of how carnivorous they may be at other times. It is a far cry from the early-day vegetarian restaurants that served up salads resembling compost piles and earth-heavy dark breads.
“Vegetarian food of the past was humorless, colorless, often textureless. But today vegetarian food is served with color and flair, something even non-vegetarians can appreciate.”
The restaurant was founded in 1979 by the San Francisco Zen Center to provide the center’s students with an opportunity to serve the community by putting their Buddhist principles into practice. Somerville gets much of her produce from Green Gulch Farm, an organic farm founded 30 years ago also by the Zen Center. Tucked in a valley a few hundred yards from the beach in the foggy Marin headlands just north of the Golden Gate bridge, Green Gulch Farm provides Greens with cool-weather crops year round.
“They’ve been digging fantastic compost into the soil for all these years,” says Somerville, who often travels over to the farm to select produce. She uses Green Gulch’s kale, lettuce, spinach, beets, fresh herbs and potatoes. “They were really the earliest to start growing all the little varieties of French lettuces and fingerling potatoes,” says Somerville.
Greens offers some vegan dishes made without meat, fish or dairy products. But many other menu items include eggs, cheese, and butter. Somerville uses some imported cheeses, but relies heavily on small local dairies for the rest. “Our customers have been exposed to a lot of real food,” she says, so she avoids bland commercial name-brand products.
Embarrassment of Local Riches
Greens uses organic cow’s milk cheese from Cow Girl Creamery in nearby Tomales Bay and artisanal goat and cow’s milk cheeses from Andante Dairy in Santa Rosa.Laura Chenel of Sonoma county, who was the first to bring goat cheeses to Northern California, is another supplier, as is Vella Cheese Company, of Sonoma, which provides Greens with a dry Monterey jack cheese. Belleweather Farms of Petaluma supplies a fromage blanc, and the all-organic Strauss Family Creamery is Somerville’s source for butter.
She uses organic produce whenever possible. During the summer, about 80 percent of the fruits and vegetables on her menu are certified organic. In the winter, the percentage drops to about 60 percent, “but much of what is not [officially] organic is sustainably grown,” says Somerville. Many of those growers are de facto organic, though they are forbidden by law from using the word because they have chosen not to pay the hefty fees and deal with the burdensome paperwork required by the new organic standards administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Much of the produce on Greens’ menu is grown within 200 miles of the restaurant. In the winter that is harder to achieve because “we can’t just have root vegetables in everything. And we can’t have mushrooms in everything because not everyone likes mushrooms.” So during the winter months she is resigned to buying some produce from Texas, Florida and Mexico.
Somerville is a regular visitor to the region’s farmers markets, particularly the market at San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza, where she enjoys the chance to meet with and sample the latest offerings of many of the farmers who ship produce to her restaurant. She also occasionally gives presentations at farmers markets. On a recent Wednesday morning, she was at the market in Berkeley showing shoppers how to make an Asian-flavored kabocha squash soup. Somerville insists there’s no match for the quality of produce she finds at farmers markets. “Buy a bunch of rainbow chard at a farmer’s market and buy a bunch from the supermarket. You’ll know the difference immediately,” she says.
Several of her produce purveyors have coastal farms in Marin and Sonoma county, including Star Route Farms from Bolinas, and Little Organic Farms of Petaluma, which supplies Greens with dry-farmed organic potatoes. She buys artichokes and broccoli from Mariquita Farms, also near the coast in Watsonville. Less than two hours away in the opposite direction, inland from San Francisco, in a dramatically different climatic region, two organic producers in the hot, dry Capay Valley—Riverdog Farm and Full Belly Farm—supply the restaurant with warm-season produce.
Because Northern California has such a diversity of growing regions nearby, and so many small farms that deliver high-quality produce, Somerville has an embarrassment of riches from which to choose. “We just want to support small growers,” Somerville says of her restaurant’s buying policies. “We just want them to keep doing what they do. When I sign the checks, I look at all these local businesses and local people we’re supporting.”
A Menu for the Cusp of Winter
Somerville is committed to serving a seasonal menu at her restaurant. Right now, as autumn moves toward winter, Greens is offering griddle cakes made with Yukon gold potatoes. She’s also serving a dish made with rainbow chard wrapped around risotto, with a sauce of the very last of the seasonal tomatoes and basil. She’s using a lot of butternut squash for soups, and she adds crunch to dishes with watermelon radishes and jicama.Pears, apples and quinces are seasonal fruits presently showing up on Greens dessert menu. As soon as the Meyer lemons come into season, they’ll turn up in a lemon meringue tartlet.
Greens is not an inexpensive restaurant. Somerville says typical brunch and lunch checks are about $20 per person, and dinner checks average $30. There’s also a four-course prix-fixe dinner that runs higher. But Greens also has a less expensive take-out window, where people can pick up a wide range of vegetarian items to go, including black bean chili, peanut noodle salad, and a focaccia sandwich with eggplant, sun-dried tomatoes, asiago cheese and arugula.
Somerville, 53, is a Michigan native who came to California to attend Humboldt State University in the redwoods in Arcata, California. She came to the Zen Center as a student and just naturally gravitated toward cooking, the way others became gardeners at Green Gulch or carpenters. For a while she cooked in the Zen Center kitchen, and then at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in the Carmel Valley, south of San Francisco.
She worked with Greens founding chef Deborah Madison, and, shortly after Madison’s departure, became the restaurant’s executive chef in 1985. She had no culinary training to begin with, but now tends to hire culinary students to work in the restaurant. She likes beginners who have what she calls “the beginner’s mind” and are totally open to learning from her. “We don’t treat them like pantry slaves, but give them a good education.” She’s finding that many are attracted to working at a vegetarian restaurant, perhaps because the other restaurants where they may work in the future are increasingly adding vegetarian dishes to their menus.
Somerville is the author of two vegetarian cookbooks, Everyday Greens and Fields of Greens. She acknowledges that the preparation for many vegetarian dishes is time-consuming. “Many of our dishes seem so simple when you eat them, but it takes time to prepare all the ingredients. For our curries, you have to make a lemon grass stock, roast the vegetables, make the sauce and put it all together.”
Somerville says she’s a vegetarian most of the time but she will occasionally eat fish or chicken. These days, vegetarians aren’t missing out by eschewing meat, she says. “Vegetarian food of the past was humorless, colorless, often textureless. But today vegetarian food is served with color and flair, something even non-vegetarians can appreciate.”
– Victoria Slind-Flor