Similies: exploring Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto

The last few weeks have provided the writer within me a chance to fumble around with some wordplay, and produce some hugely awful and desperate similes. Even though you’ve barely drunk your morning coffee, I’d be damn surprised if you didn’t want to hear any of these excellent examples. So here goes: As many ____ as ghost tours in New Orleans. As many ____ as animal hospitals in West Hollywood. As many ____ as car angst scenes in the movie Shelter.

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And now I guess I can add: As many ____ as fresh food marketplaces in Berkeley, California.

I’ve been before. I suppose every vegan should one day make the pilgrimage to the home of California cuisine, and the town that kickstarted the vegan revolution (of sorts). Last time I came I was bowled over. London is doing many exciting things in its culinary scene at the moment, but none so thrilling as California’s: vegan cinnamon rolls at Cinnaholic; Cafe Gratitude‘s BLT; chocolate cake at Herbivore. Although probably tame and old news to Californians, from a Londoner’s perspective, where vegan food in comparison to the size of the city is lacking somewhat, Berkeley was mind-blowing to me.

After spending the last eight months actively hunting down vegan food around the world, it’s probably diminished in excitement, but it’s still the shrine; the original.

So, after a long drive down from Yosemite national park, we headed straight to Cinnaholic where I devoured a strawberry and cream cheese cinnamon roll washed down with lemonade. In desperate need of walking off my car fat (and now cake fat), we took a long walk around the UC Berkeley campus and hiked up and down Shattuck Avenue’s Gourmet Ghetto. When we’d worked up enough appetite, we headed to Cafe Gratitude.

Polenta bowl at Cafe Gratitude

Polenta bowl at Cafe Gratitude

We’d been so impressed with the LA location – the menu was enormous. This one was tiny, but had a vibrant selection of items. I picked my fave BLT (the bacon replaced by smoked coconut chips), and Sam chose the polenta bowl with mushrooms and greens. It was awesome, and I found myself picking at his meal the entire time – I can’t resist anything creamy when it’s so tough to make food creamy at home without turning it into a thai dish or a peanut butter flavoured dish! If only we had a surplus of avocados and cashew nuts back in England!

Now properly stuffed with food, we tootled down to the marina and strolled around the headland, watching people bring their boats in off the bay as the sun began to set over San Francisco. I spent far too much time staring in awe at the sky, when Sam reminded me we needed to speed up to be at our friend’s house for 7.30. I needn’t have worried leaving the sunset: their house is on the top of a hill in the bay area and overlooks the city, the Golden Gate bridge, and the ocean. It’s spectacular and is an absolute treat to be staying here. (So if either of them are reading – thank you!)

The view from Oakland hills over the bay

The view from Oakland hills over the bay

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Mohawk Bend, Silverlake, LA: the best vegan brunch ever

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I am cynical, disgusting person filled with negativity and cloud. Now we’ve put me into perspective, let me just rave for five minutes on how incredible and bowled over I am by Mohawk Bend in LA.

We rocked up on the Saturday of Easter Weekend and were the first ones there. No matter: we got excellent and quick service from an absolutely lovely waitress and we were lead through to sit in the vast space at the back of the restaurant. Mohawk Bend used to be an old movie theatre and the ceiling is vault-like, the brick work is exposed, and the cocktail area is intimate, just as it should be.

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And I know I keep mentioning it, but here’s another difference between London and LA. In London, all the vegan places are like Cafe Gratitude: they pump out great food but it’s all very worthy. This menu was heavy and full of sugars and fast (yay!), and there was an actual bar that served drinks and cocktails. It stays open until 2am. In London, it’s presumed that all vegans are in bed by 7. And this is what I love about LA. Although a lot of people are omnivores eating vegan isn’t seen as eating weird: it’s just something that you do. Vegan food is experimental (it has to be to work out how to get all the awesome flavours that animal products normally impart) and the “vegan group” of people aren’t seen as weirdos here. It really is paradise.

What made me warm to Mohawk Bend all the more is that on IMG_4741its menu things were only marked if they were not vegan. So non-vegans could have bacon if they wanted, but by default, pretty much everything on the brunch menu was vegan. I mean, WHAT THE HELL IS THIS FUCKERY?

I opted for french toast (because I haven’t eaten french toast in three years) which came with a side of sticky peanut syrup and fresh strawberries. I knew the strawberries were superfluous, the server knew they were superfluous, hell, even the strawberries were like “Why am I even on this goddamn plate?”. Yet there they were, trying to convince me that I wasn’t a fat pig as I channelled the moistest, gooiest, stickiest, french toast in the world towards my mouth.

Add a pint of pink grapefruit juice to that, and we’re all set for a day trawling LA’s art galleries. Bingo.

Why my salad “dazzled”, and other vom-worthy descriptors. Cafe Gratitude and graveyards, Los Angeles

My last trip to Cafe Gratitude was to the Berkeley branch, where the server asked me what I was grateful for when giving me a slice of cheesecake and wouldn’t go away until I’d given her an answer. (I think I fobbed her off with “the cheesecake?”). I like it a lot; the vegan food is exceptional, and unless you’re on the Paleo diet, chances are you won’t even notice there’s no meat-matter on the menu.

Just south of Melrose, I’d just spent an hour trekking from Vine/Hollywood to Hollywood forever cemetery. This sounds a lot more awful than it was, especially if I tell you I got my eyebrows waxed en-route. But Sam was bemoaning my lack of enthusiasm when it came to embracing the “glitz and glamour” of the city (correct), so after we walked along the grotty stretch of road that constitutes the Walk of Fame, I suggested a detour to the strangest cemetery I’ve ever been to. And I’ve been to a lot.

They’re peaceful, reflective places. This one looked more like a brochure for a housing estate, such was the grandeur of the tombs. As well as Johnny Ramone’s, there was also a tomb on an island on its own lake, and hundreds of metres of mausoleum space complete with a baby grand piano and casually strewn roses. It was all very melodramatic.

Added to the melodrama was a half finished grave, a set of seats, and a sun canopy, which gave the impression that the service had been abandoned mid-speech as the congregation suddenly realised the coffin had gone walkies.

Needless to say, being around so many dead people had made me famished, so I headed a few blocks south to cafe Gratitude, where the correct answer to any probing questions about my state of mind today would probably be “being alive”. However the server asked instead: “what have you seen today in a different light?”

This was taking philosophical questions to a level of conversation I wasn’t prepared to encourage pre-lunch, so I squinted at her until she left. I promptly ordered the caeser salad which was called something like “dazzling”. She looked a little confused when I asked for the “caeser”, until understanding dawned on her face and she said “oh you want to be dazzled.”

When I’d finished throwing up in my hand, I asked for water and a green smoothie called something like “impossible” or “magnanimous.”

This aside, the food at Cafe Gratitude is the best specifically vegan food I’ve eaten in London or the U.S, without doubt. It’s interesting, clever, beautiful balanced food. Sam had the “Yo soy fuerte”, which was a Mexican torta with chorizo tempeh, avocado, tomato, chipotle vegan mayo and lettuce, encased in ciabatta. It was incredible, as was the beet and carrot coleslaw which came with it. I had an enormous bite of it, and although the caeser was clever – Brazil nuts were used to make the fabulous Parmesan taste, and avocadoes and capers gave a creamy/tangy zing – after having spent 50 hours on a train I was ready for something eye-wateringly tasty.

The smoothie tasted (in an excellent way) like blitzed raw cookie dough even though it was made with kale and various other sprouting ingredients.

The table next to us talked about being on set with actors, and those opposite were talking about a screenplay. It was clear the type of people who visited – it was almost like being back at the Guardian, yoga mats and clean living included. I just wish that people wouldn’t assume that because I don’t want to be part of the mass slaughter of animals, that I want to open up about what I’m actually feeling when I’m about to order lunch. Because the answer is almost always going to be, uninspiringly, hungry.

Cafe Sok, more Moscow vegan eating

Just opposite the Tretyakov gallery, cafe Sok is the perfect place to go if  you’ve spent several hours staring at Russian iconography.

  

The menu is extensive, offering raw, vegan, and vegetarian meals. The atmosphere is jovial, a man who has a daughter at Malvern College was treating his two younger daughters to lunch during his break, and three older women were gossiping next to me. Again, about two words of English were spoken, but no matter. It was a point and click job.

The pictures looked pretty.

Outside the snow gusted itself into a blizzard. Russians all seemed to own non-stick snow coats, while mine seemed to attract flakes. I was happily thawing out with my diet coke. As in Iceland, and indeed in Hungary in January when I went with my friend Katherine, much of my time in Russia has so far been spent hiding from the elements. It’s just so cold being outside for any longer than three hours is impossible. I’d craved a hot bowl of soup all day but was so tempted by the thought of hummus that I opted instead for that and some dumplings.

  

Note for all future or current visitors: dumplings, although delicious, are basically potato ravioli, which is heavy. Despite this, and the weirdest hummus I’ve ever eaten, I still managed to leave hungry. I remained hungry until I went to the cinema to shelter from the Arctic Gale and sat through the second best exotic marigold hotel with a packet of Pringles that I demolished in seconds.

It was cheap though. Maybe because I was a foreigner or wearing a coat or had brown hair or something, but there was a 20% discount on the bill. Brill!

  

Fresh, yet another vegan restaurant in Moscow. (Yawn)

First things first, go here if you want great vegan food. Now we’ve got that covered, a few thoughts.

Maybe it’s a Russian thing, or maybe a vegan thing, but everyone is very hasty to take your order here. Similarly to clear. And to give you the bill. One thing I’ve also found, is that servers look a bit dazed when you enter the restaurant. I haven’t been turning up one minute before closing or at 3pm, just normal eating hours, yet they look shocked that you’d come in. I had one woman in Fresh, where I’m sitting now, just wordlessly hand me the menu and block my entrance. Weird.

  

The menu here is incredible. As well as being in English (bonus) it’s full of things you actually want to eat, as opposed to many vegan restaurants that are a bit worthy.

According to the website it’s a Canadian import, and it feels more a low-lit Pret than either of the other more Soviet style establishments I’ve been in since I arrived in Moscow.

There’s lots of mention of chia seeds, carrot fettuccine, and there’s a great salad selection. All of their deserts are vegan including blueberry cheesecake and panna cotta. Despite this, I just went for Carrot Cake – damnit!

  

Coffees come with any milk you might require, and breakfast looks like something any hungry vegan might crave – avocado toast, oatmeal with almond milk, or tofu scramble. I’m in love already and I only ordered the thai style burger – a protein heavy burger (much needed after all the walking today) with coriander and a peanut sauce. I ordered a glass of wine too, which means that I couldn’t order more food. I don’t know whether it’s because I skipped breakfast, or have been out since 8.30 in the snow, but I’m still ravenous. 

Maybe posting a picture of the burger and the menu will help. And my carrot cake if it ever arrives…

  

Ps. The vegan carrot cake with coconut cream was the tops. Just sayin’

Eating vegan in Moscow: Avocado Cafe

 

 There must be a rule somewhere, that if you own a vegan cafe you must either call it “green” something or “avocado”. Originality aside, I was very relieved to not only find a vegan restaurant, but to locate one so close to my hotel.

From all of the 24 hours I’ve been here, I am confirm that the stereotype is true. Russia is awful for vegetarians, especially if they don’t speak Russian.

I hadn’t expected there to be so little linguistic overlap, or so few budget falafel shops that litter the rest of Europe. I say litter, I meant enhance. But thinking about it, the sort of people who immigrate to Moscow most likely come from the provinces and ex-Soviet territory, where, with the possible exception of Georgia, food is mainly meat and potatoes. And I imagine even Georgia’s meals revolve around meat and two veg somewhat.

ThUs, the culinary scene isn’t as varied as London or New York. Think Paris, a scene where they do their own cuisine exceptionally well, and haven’t branched out a lot to other nationalities. Chinese restaurants aren’t as numerous as I thought considering Russia shares a border with China, but there are more than enough Georgian restaurants to make up for any deficit. Plus there’s a swanky Italian place called Bosco in the old GUM shopping centre.

  

So I chose to be unadventurous and hunted down Avocado, a vegan restaurant about 15 minutes walk from my hotel. The menu has been mauled by Google translate (I imagine), but if you can get past that and just say “vegan” in a questioning tone while pointing at the pictures, you’ll probably be fine. Like in Hungary, I get the feeling that Russians still go for these set menus with a soup and a main. (Edit. Or salad, as I have been reliably informed by a Russian reader). I don’t. I hate starting meals with soup. It’s like drinking a ton of water that fills you up and then you can’t enjoy the main couse. So the server looked at me as though I was a felon when I ordered two mains to make up for no soup. Thankfully the salad and rosti type fritters were small, and they came with a helping of vegan sour cream which was fabulous. Beware of the oil though – there was a lot of it. 

  

There seemed to a few vegan deserts, there were stir fries, heavy, Russian sounding dishes – potato with a side of potato – style. However, what I did have was delicious and for ten pounds (two mains and a drink) not a bad price at all.

  

The decor of the place was sparse to say the least, and like everywhere I’ve been to in Moscow so far (including my hotel room) located in a basement. To counter this, the establishment had thoughtfully installed two TV screens which showed a mountain stream flowing through a wood accompanied by tinkling music. Thank God they did. 

  

Fly. And  gnocchi. 

Yesterday a plane crashed with 150 people on board in the foothills of the French Alps. Today, I’m 38,000 ft in the air; we’ve just reached the altitude of the plane that crashed yesterday had before it went into a fast, eight minute descent.

It’s easy to feel immense sorrow for all those involved in the Air Asia crashes, but closer to home, in European airspace, on a German plane that apparently crashed arbitrarily, with no bad weather reported, the risk seems greater. Taking a flight is still immensely safe, but it’s a little like playing poker. You have to go all-in to have any fun. Once you’re on the plane, that’s it.

I’m on my way to Moscow, but since hearing the news about the plane crash yesterday, I’ve felt jittery. There was once upon a time when that was it – I wouldn’t have set my alarm at 4am and I wouldn’t have gone to the airport. This wasn’t that long ago- just last January Sam and I were booked in to go to Morocco and I got as far as the plane. I chatted to the pilot, and then I calmly got off and took the bus to Amsterdam instead.

I’m an aviophobe, one who has spent their entire life trying to overcome it. Want to hear the hilarious twist of fate? I am, by profession, a travel journalist. I’m fascinated by aviation, new plane models, runways, airports, and, I guess, the destination. My job has been formed by my fear- my need to ask questions and to reassure myself that “everything will be ok.”

Fear of flying for me at least, is fear of fear itself. That lack of control when the plane is bouncing through the clouds, and the pure terror when the plane hits an airpocket and the captain comes over the tannoy with a strained voice: “Cabin crew, take your seats immediately.”

Nothing can floor me more than that – grief, physical pain, love. Nothing affects me more than inflight fear. So, it seemed cutting that the night before getting on a plane where I knew my stomach would be roiling, I should make something hearty, filling, and nutritious. To calm the nerves and cleanse the soul, so karmic turbulence wouldn’t hit!

Gnocchi with avocado sauce

Ok, I get it. This looks a bit green, and green doesn’t scream “yay!” It screams “health kick.” But hey, the blogs called Fly Green Vegan and I’m doing all of those things, so tough shit.

Serves two

Ingredients

1 cup gnocchi, boiled for three minutes until tender

One large, ripe avocado

Juice of half a lemon

2 tbsp olive oil

Enough almond milk to make it liquid

A handful of basil leaves

Salt and pepper

1 cup button mushrooms

1 leek, sliced

1 clove of garlic

 

Method

Add the chopped leek into a pan with a dash of oil and cook until softened. Add a dash of water to help things along. Add seasoning, a tsp of stock, and mushrooms. Cook for a further 5 minutes.

In another bowl, blend the avocado, almond milk, lemon juice, garlic and basil together until you have a liquid the consistency of double cream.

Add the avocado mixture to the mushrooms and leeks, and tip in the cooked gnocchi. Stir, and season to taste.

Hopefully this will quell any pre-flight terror you have!