Though vegetarianism has been embraced by an ever-increasing number of our populace, one thing remains sadly the same: Herbivores face a dining-out dilemma.
Sure, the rabbits among us can focus on a few things at Montrio (likely to include mushrooms or polenta), or spring for a pricey, small-plate spread at Marinus (the Bernardus landmark offers a number of tantalizing veggie apps for those who don’t mind foie gras on the menu), but for those low dough, well, these are the poor vegetarians of the 831.
With that in mind, the newly opened, weekend-only vegetarian restaurant Julia’s, located in the Forest Hill shopping center in Pacific Grove, presents an enticing opportunity to those who shun meat and all that comes with it: the chance to order anything on the menu and expand their universe beyond veggie burritos, pizza, or some leaves with oil and vinegar. To have, for once, choice.
Or so one would think.
On my first visit, initial contact with the hurried server came when he delivered glasses of water and a few generous plates of rustic bread slices rubbed with olive oil, garlic and rosemary, accompanied by a dipping bowl that, aside from balsamic vinegar, contained a mixture of these same ingredients. The bread was pleasantly warm, savory and satisfying, and because of its richness and pronounced herbal flavor, was actually better without any dipping. Nice touch.
A good while later, our next encounter with the waiter had him passing out individual plates of chopped romaine dressed with vinaigrette. Some overdue communication ensued, and we learned that Julia’s does “family-style,” but not the kind where a family or group order what they want and then share, but where everyone has a plate of the exact same thing and you better like it because that’s all there is. It’s a risky proposition for a restaurant to take choice out of the diners’ hands completely – it implies that the kitchen knows best. And if that’s the case, it better be good.
The simple salad of romaine lettuce with an uninspired vinaigrette was not. At least one other vegetable or fruit, or even cheese or croutons, comes to mind as an improvement. And though it was healthy in that it filled my stomach with low-calorie roughage, eating it felt more like work than play. Vegetarianism as penance is what has given the lifestyle a bad name – and it doesn’t have to be that way.
Next up was a mushroom cream soup with leeks that was full of flavor, but could have benefited from more subtlety, as black pepper and oregano obscured some of the depth that might have been found elsewhere.
This was followed by a stir-fry that felt out of place given the flavors presented in the salad and soup, and which not a member of my party came close to finishing. The vegetables were overcooked and drowned in rice vinegar and there was a similarly inappropriate amount of sesame oil.
Our final entree was ravioli stuffed with a puree of butternut squash and brown sugar in a kale and cream sauce with wild mushrooms. The sauce, in particular the earthy mushrooms, was the best thing we had tasted thus far, but the raviolis were cloyingly sweet.
For dessert we were brought a decent slice of cherry pie, though in truth none in our party had much of an appetite left to enjoy it. We then observed another table being delivered vegan chocolate cake, which looked better, and again we found out key information too late, and only after inquiring ourselves: there are vegan options for every course, if so inclined. Wine is also for sale, which would have been useful to know when we first sat down.
The check arrived with a touch of suspense – at this point, we still didn’t know how much the meal would cost, and it became a sort of game to see how long the meal would continue before the price of it was made known. The tab came out to $11 a head, before tax, a darn reasonable number for the amount of food we were served.
My second trip found the food more consistent and the service far better – there were some tasty if simple roasted tomatoes and some remarkable cheese bread – but the meal still closed with a sigh when the paella included processed veggie sausage, the McNugget of vegetarian cuisine. Nonetheless, it was clear that the presence of owner Michael Brown – a long-time caterer who has cooked for the likes of Orson Welles and the cast of Streets of San Francisco – elevated things a bit.
Other developments are also promising. Last month the restaurant began hosting Rawednesday, a weekly raw-food menu that brings a different world cuisine each week. The event is put on by an outfit called Food in the Nude, and word of mouth thus far inspires hope that there just might be a local raw food option that can last ($21, 6-8pm, take-out till 9pm. Call to reserve, 277-6911).
Though there is ample room for improvement, there is much to like about Julia’s, and given the steady stream of customers on each of the nights I visited, others seem to agree. But both here and in the wider county, what would be really choice is more vegetarian options.
JULIA’S • 1180 Forest Ave., Pacific Grove. 5-9pm Fri-Sat; 5-8pm Sun. Cash only. 656-9533.