Sometimes when I meet people they ask me what my "real name" is. Or they just smile in that slow easy way, knowingly commenting, "Your parents were hippies, eh?"
My name was given to me. By parents in the process of "dropping out," becoming radicalized, and writing about the civil rights movement. I saw too much. I went to a red-diaper school where we attended anti-war protests and learned how to tie-dye.
I have top-notch hippy credentials, as you can see. But because at age 5 I moved to New York City, land of sarcasm and brutal reality, I did not grow up wanting to celebrate my former lifestyle. I never went to a Dead show. No Birkenstocks in my closet. I have never believed in free love.
These reasons are the stupid ones I used to avoid Cafe Gratitude. The first snuck into my old neighborhood on Harrison and 20th street and even though I heard Tracy Chapman was going there and the girls were cute, I stayed away fearing contagion.
Recently at the Berkeley farmer's market I ran into an old aquaintance, Miele, who cheerily reported that she and her partner were managing the latest Cafe Gratitude just blocks from my new home in Berkeley. One Saturday night, two weeks later, I found my mouth suggesting it as a dinner possibility. Not only was I not disappointed but I have been back since.
Cafe Gratitude is indeed contagious. After a mere two years of being in business, Matthew and Terces Engelhart have 3 locations under their belt, a San Francisco main central kitchen --operating 24 hours a day -- and plans for others in cities where devotees of raw whole food eating are growing.
"We're not necessarily in the restaurant business, we're in it for the community it builds," Ms. Engelhart said happily in a phone conversation about the popularity of Cafe Gratitude. "We create an environment of unconditional love for our employees and make a huge commitment to the quality of their lives."
Although much of the food is prepped offsite, the lines-people have a lot of input as to how the dishes are plated and seasoned. Sometimes Ms. Engelhart suggests ideas and the kitchen workers tweak recipes, other times un-cooks bring dishes they've come up with and "a lot of the food has made it to the menus." Luckily for us, a recipe book is in the works. These delicious secrets are well worth the wait.
Until Millennium and Angelica Kitchen, I'd not had a professionally cooked vegan meal I found inspiring. In childhood my mother went through both a Pritiken and macrobiotic phase. And I'd eaten more than my fair share of ashram and communal-house cooked meals.
Cafe Gratitude's food is delicious, texturally explicit, mystifying, daunting, and their menu is large enough to challenge anyone's inner bored diner. Unbelievably it's completely soy free! No tepid tofu here, no fatty aftertaste of soy milk in the smoothies. When Ms. Engelhart solidified my guess at soy's complete omission, she mentioned soy's difficult digestibility and the desire not to participate in a legume with such strong ties to Genetically Modified Organisms. Matthew and Terces Engelhart have owned a 16-acre organic, apprentice-run farm on Maui for the last 11 years and work directly with farmers to get the large supply of produce and nuts needed for their cuisine.
When entering Cafe Gratitude for the first time, I suggest opening your mind as far as it will go. If you enjoy the attention of the entire restaurant on your birthday, this is the restaurant for you. The staff is ebullient, if not always efficient and aware.
Menu items have names like I AM MAGICAL stuffed mushrooms: Six cremini mushrooms stuffed with sprouted sunflower seed-walnut pate, sprinkled with Brazil nut parmesan, $7; I AM FLOURISHING Mediterranean plate: Live walnut-almond falafels served with sprouted almond-sesame seed hummus, spicy olive tapenade, seasoned almond toast, and cucumber tzatziki, $12; and my favorite: I AM GIVING kale & sea vegetable salad: Kale and sea vegetables marinated with sesame orange dressing, tossed with cucumbers, shiitakes, pine nuts, and sesame seeds, $9. If you have never attempted to eat raw kale, I invite you to try this dish. Each bite is a new adventure in taste and texture. The menu is overwhelming, but the food is a varied mix of strong and subtle, crunchy and creamy, bright and complex.
Silly as it may sound, it's fun to tell the waiter what you want in the first person. Having heard the shakes were a highlight of Cafe Gratitude, I ordered I AM DELICIOUS An almond malt smoothie: Young coconut milk, almond butter, dates, maca, and vanilla, $6.50. If for any reason you find yourself being unable to chew, living off these shakes and live juices would be possible. Not in the mood for something thick? Cafe Gratitude's almond milk is house-made and more refreshing than you might expect.
Vegan cookery, or, in this case, vegan raw, is a mystery to me. But more than the savoury food, which anyone can conjure if pressed, vegan baking, or un-baking is beyond my comprehension. After a surprisingly innovative, well-balanced, gorgeously plated meal of grean leafies and mushrooms and nuts in various incarnations, I was to taste possibly one of the best desserts in my eating career.
I AM AWAKENING is aptly named. A Key Lime pie with coconut meringue and macadamia nut crust is as acidic as bravely biting into a lime wedge, but perfectly balanced between a seemingly buttery crust, and rich, smooth, light "custard" set with Irish moss. My friend and I fought over the last bite.
On my second trip I AM AWAKENING was, sadly, unavailable, so I tried I AM HEAVENLY mudslide pie: Raw chocolate crust filled with a creamy raw chocolate and almond butter filling, rippled with cashew whipped cream. Heavier and denser, like its distant cousin-twice-removed, the cheesecake, this slice was a little too unctuous for me, although I could have eaten the crust on its own!
Whatever your feelings about vegans, live foodists, or the vague philosophies of a modern day business model based on "being present to the endless beauty and bounty of life," Cafe Gratitude has some unique and exquisite foods worth trying.
2400 Harrison SF 9 AM- 10 PM daily
1336 9th Avenue SF 10 AM- 10 PM daily
1730 Shattuck Avenue Berkeley 10 AM- 10 PM daily