I confess: I was a lousy vegetarian. I clearly didn't take it seriously enough because when I drank too much, I forgot my best intentions and dashed to White Castle faster than I could say double cheeseburger. Even when I was working at a very good macrobiotic restaurant, I'd fall off the meatless wagon every so often and gleefully eat fried chicken or a slab of lasagna. Finally, I gave up trying to repress my carnivorous instincts. I fully embraced my passion for red meat and, one day, vowing that God was my witness, I swore I'd never eat a tempeh burger again.
I do have a fondness for vegetarian restaurants, however. Just not the humorless and self-righteous ones, where proud and pious patrons pick at tofu paella and nibble on nut burgers as if they're eating in a solemn temple where the concept of animal flesh is a carnal — if not cardinal — sin and the devotion to raw carrots and organic juices is a step closer to nirvana. Who knows, maybe it is. But as I go dancing merrily to hell, I want more out of life than a bowl of brown rice and the sage wisdom of Michio Kushi.
Heidi VanPelt-Belle, the waifish celebrity vegan who was tabloid fodder for a brief period after she married and divorced a once-famous, former child star (I never watched Home Improvement, so I probably couldn't pick out Taran Noah Smith out of a police lineup), understands my reservations about boring vegetarian restaurants.
"They're beige," she said. That day she was wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt, a miniskirt and splashes of gold, indigo and hot-pink eye shadow. Beige, she is not. Nor is her restaurant, Füd, which she recently opened with her second husband, a lanky guy named Jerimiah Rozzo-Belle, who apparently is good with his hands: He crafted the wooden tabletops in the narrow storefront space (the former Sun Ray restaurant), and he and VanPelt-Belle are the parents of 22-month-old Vox. Rozzo-Belle helps out in the kitchen, too.
The fully outfitted kitchen in this brightly colored restaurant certainly wasn't there in the space's previous incarnation. VanPelt-Belle whirls around it with various assistants, including the bohemian — but former square, according to his own narrative — Devlon, who has become adept at making some of this restaurant's signature dishes himself. The menu here isn't elaborate; it consists of a dozen or so dishes. The menu is handwritten in colored chalk on a blackboard. VanPelt-Belle and her employees happily explain the ingredients because not everyone understands what a "Rainbow Wrap" is supposed to be. After eating one, I'm still not sure. Salad tucked into a collard green leaf, I guess.
The owners insist that Füd is a work-in-progress. Yes, there will be a credit-card machine soon (the restaurant only accepts cash), there will be a real menu printed and, at some point, real servers instead of counter service. The staff members deliver the food to patrons, who order right on the edge of the open kitchen. The process is both fascinating and irritating.
The place has its distinct charm, however. I've now eaten lunch, dinner and Saturday brunch there, bringing with me a vegetarian for one meal, a vegetable hater for another, and an adventurous eater for the brunch. They all liked their experiences (the vegetarian, interestingly enough, was the fussiest, but that's his nature), and my friend Truman, whom I predicted might detest the cozy eccentricities of Füd, absolutely adored it. Who knew?
VanPelt-Belle says her claim to fame, in California's vegan community, was her vegan tacos, so not surprisingly, the current lunch-dinner menu is heavy on meatless Mexican creations, such as chalupas, tacos, tostados and the like. The day I dined with vegetarian Scott, he couldn't decide between the jackphish chalupa and the wild-rice tostada, so he ordered both so we could share them. I suddenly craved a fried-tofu sandwich — there's a choice between spicy or locally produced smoked tofu — because, damn it, in my obsession with traditionally unhealthy eating, I wanted something fried.
Each of the three dishes was delicious: The fake fish that was folded into the chalupa shell was made from unripened jackfruit (native to Southeast Asia and the national fruit of Indonesia), which is used for savory dishes before it ripens and becomes sweet. The chalupa was slathered liberally with VanPelt-Belle's proprietary cashew cheese, a spicy neon-orange concoction that looks like a cross between Velveeta and finger paint but tastes very good. Scott was stunned by how fishy (phishy?) the fruit looked and tasted. The rice-mushroom blend used for the meatless tostada also looked and tasted like the real thing.
"Do non-vegans come here and eat and think they're actually eating meat?" I asked VanPelt-Belle.
"All the time!" she said and laughed. "We get more non-vegan diners than vegans."
I'm a big tofu fan, and the sautéed squares of milky tofu, infused with red-pepper flakes and piled on a bun with lettuce and onion, were wonderful. I was less entranced with that day's dessert, a vegan "brownie" that was more cementlike than chewy, although the cashew-milk soft-serve ice cream and the dairy-free chocolate and caramel sauces were extraordinary.
Dinners, served only on Thursdays and Fridays, haven't really caught on yet but should. My friend Truman raved about the silky gazpacho, which Devlon (rhymes with Revlon) concocted from apples, oranges, lemons, garlic, beets, tomatoes, fresh ginger and peppers. "It's divine," Truman said, savoring each spoonful.
Light jazz played over the sound system, and VanPelt-Belle brought out a big portobello-mushroom wrap for Truman and a chalupa made with her faux-meat concoction that was simmered in a rich and intensely flavored mole sauce — she uses cacao nibs to create it — and served with lots of fresh guacamole. It was messy to eat but fantastic. We didn't have time to stay for dessert, but I took along a wedge of freshly baked banana-walnut bread and ate it in the car going home. Great!
My friend Carol Ann was completely charmed by the Saturday brunch at Füd. She had gone to yoga class that morning and was ready, she said, for something healthy for breakfast. She had a colorful medley of sautéed chard, onions, peppers, tomatoes and meaty portobello mushrooms, and I ate the tofu scramble, which looked and tasted like scrambled eggs, served with an excellent old-fashioned biscuit that I slathered with a fake butter (Balance) that tasted an awful lot like the real thing.
I had never tasted meatless biscuits and gravy and was glad that I settled for a half-order of Füd's version: a hefty, moist biscuit generously ladled with a deftly seasoned mushroom gravy that was as robustly hearty as any local diner's sausage gravy.
"Everyone in here," Carol Ann whispered across the table, "looks so healthy and attractive!"
"Except me," I said, taking another bite of biscuit and gravy. Needless to say, I didn't go to yoga class that morning. I didn't ride my bike to the restaurant like the tanned Adonis sitting at a café table outside. I wasn't wearing workout clothes like the stunning young brunette dining with her mother at the table to our right.
I was definitely the slob in the room, but at least I was eating all the right stuff for a change. And for me, that's at least Füd for thought.