Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Saturn Cafe: Bohemian Like You

[This is the first of a series of regular restaurant reviews that will usually appear on Sundays.]

But if you dig on vegan food
Well, come over to my work
I'll have 'em cook you something
That you'll really love

'Cause I like you
Yeah I like you
And I'm feeling so bohemian like you

The Dandy Warhols, "Bohemian Like You"

Fosco is not a vegetarian, but he's generally sympathetic to the idea. After all, there is something extremely unappetizing about meat when it's raw. And slaughterhouses sure don't look like fun for anyone (or anything) involved. But then, there is bacon--surely the most glorious food on earth. How could Fosco give it up?

Of course, this doesn't mean that Fosco is unwilling to eat vegetarian food--he loves hummus, vegetarian super burritos, and the incomparable Vegetable Menu at Charlie Trotter's. So, last weekend, he made a visit to the restaurant that the locals describe as "so very Santa Cruz": the Saturn Cafe.

As Fosco sees it, there are two conflicting impulses in vegetarian food: the assimilationist and the separatist. The motivation behind the assimilationist vegetarian chefs is to reproduce all of the glories of meaty cuisine (the cheeseburger, spaghetti and meatballs, buffalo wings) with no meat. This is the impulse that leads to the creation of things like fake bacon, meat-flavored soy patties, and, god help us, Tuno.

The separatist camp of vegetarians is willing to give up traditional meat dishes in favor of foods based on the natural flavors of vegetables and legumes (and their interplay). The separatist vegetarian chef is not interested in finding a vegetarian approximation to the cheeseburger; rather, she wants to create a vegetarian lunch option with its own, distinct flavor. The separatist impulse is responsible for, at the most basic level, foods like the grilled portabello sandwich. At the most advanced level, this impulse will produce something like the "squash and corn ragout with chanterelle mushrooms and fried squash blossoms" at Chez Panisse.

Fosco doesn't want to denigrate too much the assimilationist impulse. After all, strict vegetarians probably do miss cheeseburgers quite a bit. However, as a omnivore who can eat a real cheeseburger when he so chooses, Fosco would rather not bother with a second-rate soyburger. Rather, he is more interested in a vegetarian entree that tastes like the vegetables/legumes/&c from which it is created (and no, salads don't count).

Fosco tends to enjoy most vegetarian restaurants, because most vegetarian restaurants tend to draw from both assimilationist and separatist traditions on their menus. Even in places that serve fake bacon, Fosco can typically find a delicious polenta cake or something. Except, it turns out, at the Saturn Cafe.

The Saturn Cafe is the WalMart for assimilationist vegetarians. Everything they could possibly want is there: burgers, chicken sandwiches, tacos, tuna melts--all made with meat-flavored soy protein (including that satanic Tuno). And, just like WalMart, the interior is a bit cruddy and the employees really don't want to be there.

Unbelievably, there were no separatist vegetarian entrees on the menu! Not even one portabello sandwich or falafel! This is inexplicable to Fosco, just inexplicable.

On his recent visit, Fosco ordered the "grill-flavored" soy patty as a pesto burger. Fosco's personal assistant, Geoffrey, likened the burger's flavor to a "bouillon cube"--the description that an assimilationist vegetarian chef might take as a compliment (although Fosco does not consider this a compliment). The tomato on the burger was underripe and tasteless. The pesto on the burger tasted bottled (a vegetarian restaurant that does not make it's own pesto! Inexplicable!). The fries were fine.

The best praise that Fosco can manage for this place is that they serve the delightfully grapefruity soft drink Squirt--a decision that I'm told is due to a (laudable) desire not to enrich the giant corporations like Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Consequently, Fosco presumes that the owner of Squirt, Cadbury Schweppes PLC, is some sort of Mom-and-Pop operation. (They probably carbonate the soda in their bathtub...)

In conclusion, Fosco can only wonder what makes the Saturn Cafe "so Santa Cruz." Are the residents of his new home really so flaky? Is this what Bohemian life has come to? It is with trepidation that Fosco looks ahead to his second month here.

No comments: