Saturday, April 26, 2008

Millennium - San Francisco, Ca

Stop the presses! Catch the flying pigs! Start building the snowmen in hell! Start the George W. Bush impeachment proceedings!

I agree with Michael Bauer.

I know, right?

That's something of a hyperbole, as I often agree with Michael Bauer's reviews in the Chronicle in many instances, at least in part. What I object to is his slavish devotion to "chef" cults, his adoration for ingredient at the expense of innovation and (in my mind) flavor, and the weird relationship he seems to have with the Kuleto restaurants.

What I'm saying is, rarely do I agree 100% with any Michael Bauer review, but in this instance I think he's nailed Millennium dead-on. I'll let you go to and look it up for yourselves.

Having once had a vegan girlfriend, I've actually been to the esteemed center of no-animal fine-dining a couple prior times and recall enjoying my meals, however this visit to celebrate a friend's 20th vegeversary was my first visit in a number of years and my first after having spent the last four firmly entwined in the world of Bay Area fine-dining.

The wine list here is excellent, very very well-priced, and food-friendly. They are a bit disingenuous when they label all their wines as either "organic," "biodynamic,"or "sustainably farmed," because only the first two labels mean that they are beholden to any sort of regulatory boards. Virtually all small-production wine of any quality, particularly in Europe but also domestically, is produced sustainably. Any non-factory farmed wine's pretty damn eco-friendly.

The food, overall, is quite good. That being said, in many instances it's very complicated to the point of being muddled, as Bauer mentioned in his most recent update. I'm not one who believes that one needs meat as a centerpiece for an entree to have a point--I've had some spectacular vegetarian entrees before and often find a big chunk of meat to be as boring as a plate of spaghetti.

At Millennium, however, so much of the food relies upon a truckload of ingredients and a shit ton of spices. There's a somewhat lackadaisical approach to presentation, many of the dishes arriving somewhat lukewarm (distressing given that food poisoning occurs most often from produce, not animal products). The pickles and beets that we shared at the table were delicious, the beets in particular were cooked nicely and accompanied with a well-made balsamic reduction. My appetizer of grilled flatbread was underwhelming--the only indication that the flatbread was "grilled" were the black marks--the bread was otherwise room temperature and a bit stale. The accompanying eggplant was nice, the cucumber was overloaded with spice. Girlfriend Charlie's shaved asparagus salad was perfectly cooked and dressed, but the little caraway cracker thing was stale.

Entrees showed Millennium's talents a bit more strongly. My injera crepe was pretty good, though served under-temperature. In this case I was expecting a spice orgy anyway due to the Ethiopian-inspired nature of the dish, so that wasn't a problem. I did find the dice of the vegetables to be too small to easily stab with a fork but too large to scoop and bits of food fell out of the crepe with every bite. Charlie's seared polenta cake with vegetables was delicious, though this dish in particular looked like it was missing a chunk of chicken or a rack of lamb short ribs sitting atop the vegetables and starch. Most other preparations did a good job of showcasing their vegetable protein centerpiece well. The hit of the evening was the chard roulade, stuffed with some sort of very well-executed vegan ricotta and mushrooms and nuts and all sorts of good stuff. Meaty, moist, flavorful without being overwrought, and served piping hot.

In every instance I would say that the plates were overconceived while still not having much of a point. Every dish was sort of "little chopped ingredients! spices spices spices! sauce sauce sauce! Pan-ethnic influences!" But with the exception of perhaps the roulade, nothing I tasted had any sort of gestalt, the sense of a whole of the dish that is greater than the sum of its parts. Which is the principal distinguisher of exquisite professionally prepared cuisine and a really good home-cooked meal.

I throw everything out the window when it comes to Millennium's desserts, however. The desserts are retarded good. Creamy, rich, decadent, and remarkably well assembled given their lack of eggs and dairy. The non-dairy ice creams have always been the best I've tasted. The chocolate almond midnight and the pistachio cake were two particular highlights. Desserts also had a distinctive quality of assembly where I felt there was a sense of the completed product throughout the preparation as opposed to the entrees, which had that "little of this, dash of that" quality of an accomplished amateur cook.

Sort of like Bob Ross messing around with watercolors on a canvas versus Michelangelo freeing his envisioned David from a single piece of marble--both results are pleasing, only one could be called transcendent.

And it's not the happy trees.

Not to say Millennium wasn't very good--it was and is still at or near the pinnacle of vegan fine-dining in America. I'd gladly go back and I'm curious to see if they're ever able to achieve what their chard roulade came very close to doing: an innovative, fully articulated, vegan dish to rival, say, Zuni roast chicken or Redd horseradish-crusted shortribs.

I'm pretty sure it's possible.

580 Geary Street
San Francisco, Ca 94102
Reservations: 415-345-3900 or

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