A Story of Zen and Fine Dining
The Green Gulch Farm Zen Center is located near one of the most picturesque beaches in the Bay Area. Muir Beach is in fact a place that acts as the backdrop to many lovely childhood memories and is the final destination of a popular trail from the center. I had accompanied my father to the center a few times and even participated in the zen meditation practice followed by a simple but well prepared lunch. While the meditation practice mostly consisted of trying not to fall asleep and being startled by the loudness of the gong, the food there was lovely. A purist approach to cooking, they offered homemade bread, soup, and salad made from produce grown on the premises.
The center has several subsidiaries, one of which was of particular interest. A fine dining establishment called Greens had opened in 1979 by Fort Mason in San Francisco and I was curious as to what happened when you took zen values and brought them together with highly experienced chefs. So when my father offered to take us there for lunch, I pounced on the occasion.
We drove across the gorgeous Bay Bridge on a rare cloudless morning and arrived at our destination with no hiccups unless you count an uncooperative GPS app. The water was a bright blue, a nice change from the usual gray of Bay Area bodies of water, and several boats that I dreamed of owning were docked around the marina. This was all fine and well, but it was time to stick our faces in some fancy food.
The exclusively vegetarian menu was slightly off-putting in as much as being on keto, I need to eat plenty of meat. However, my father hasn’t eaten meat in over forty years, so this suited him just fine. I decided not to complain and instead started analyzing the menu for appealing options that could be adapted to my needs. Dad went straight for the wine list and was immediately impressed by the selection of mostly Californian options and creative cocktails (rosemary pink peppercorn gin and tonic anyone?) Sighing over an interesting version of a boulevardier, I turned over the menu and was pleased at the wide selection of dishes. Though the menu was honestly a little too extensive for what the organization stood for, the offerings were intriguing. From a green goddess hummus to a spring vegetable tagine, the food was classic California in its exploration of world cuisines.
Now for the momentous decision: what dishes would satisfy both my father and I? As someone who strongly favors simple meals prepared well, he made a beeline for the grilled artichokes and lemon artichoke aioli. This turned out to be a pile of quite well turned and blanched artichokes that had been haphazardly tossed onto a grill for a nice set of char marks. The aioli had a delightful flavor and I appreciated the use of artichoke to emphasize the main component of the dish, but it looked slightly broken in the ramekin. I went for the Roman lentil soup as my body was screaming for protein and this was the best option. Soups are always a risk in any dining experience, but also a telltale sign of the standards of a chef. If these guys managed to make a soup to impress, I would return on on a weekly basis. Here goes nothing. The soup arrived and my face started to fall dangerously in Sad Food Face territory. The otherwise lovely waitress hadn’t used a tray to bring the bowl, so there was definite sloppy marks all around as it landed in front of me. The chunky soup was topped with a poorly executed chiffonade of mint, something I hadn’t seen before and was excited to sample.
Two spoonfuls of soup and I’d tried enough. While there was nothing technically wrong with the soup, it simply was lacking in the soul and comfort that such a prepared dish brings. The cook had properly soaked the lentils, performed nice knife work, used a good quality vegetable stock, and went through the trouble of making a bouquet garni (a cheesecloth sachet filled with a variety of fresh herbs). Save an extra teaspoon of salt in the finished product, the correct steps were followed, something to be appreciated. Still, a soup needed to bring forward a warm and fuzzy feeling, something that even once the bowl emptied never came to pass.
Onward to our main courses, which I’d felt quite challenged by as everything that sounded appealing had some sort of forbidden food. I decided on what was advertised as mesquite grilled tofu and asparagus and simply asked for a salad instead of rice. The menu featured a baby lettuce salad, so this made for a promising substitute. After some debate and a fruitful Google search, my father selected the fresh camaroni with spring vegetables in a gorgonzola cream sauce, and we went on to chat about plans for the future and the upcoming baked goods sale at the Berkeley flea market. I was excited to eat more asparagus as it is somewhat of a luxury item in Israel.
The perfect ten minutes passed by and we received the rest of our meal. I was pleasantly surprised at the aesthetic of the plates. The camaroni dish featured pea shoots from the Green Gulch farm, and so the plate was piled high with the lovely ingredient. I felt it was a bit excessive and lacking in intentionality: the pea shoots were used for their own sake and not necessarily to highlight anything else in the dish. Regardless, the snap peas, fennel, and spinach were well prepared and the gorgonzola sauce was reasonably well balanced, so no drastic errors came forward.
My own dish proved a touch more challenging. Honestly not being a huge fan of tofu as it is so often poorly executed, I was pleasantly surprised at the expertise with which the generous piece adorning my plate was executed. Well pressed, grilled and topped with a miso mustard glaze, this was as good as tofu got. I would have liked more of the glaze, but it was otherwise rather nice. One element I hadn’t noticed on the menu was the presence of maitake mushrooms, something I had only sampled a handful of times. These mushrooms were no less than spectacular. Obviously venerated by the chef who’d taken the time to prepare them so expertly, they were beautifully charred to the point that their meaty flavor perfectly mimicked a well-cooked flat iron steak. I reluctantly gave my father a piece of mushroom, and as it turned out it was his first time eating this particular variety. He was in awe of the fact that such an ingredient could be so beautiful. The asparagus on my plate were more than satisfactory. Blanched and finished on the grill, they had just the right amount of bite without feeling undercooked. The rest of my plate was filled with a mixed greens salad with pickled turnips and raw radishes. While these were fine, the dressing proved problematic. As a stickler for vinaigrette, this one was broken, horrendously under seasoned and frankly odd. The menu specified a lime variation, but it was a peculiar shade of red, which made absolutely no sense. It was also served on the side in a ramekin, a major pet peeve.
Still, the dish, while somewhat lacking in cohesion, was perfectly acceptable. My father enjoyed his pasta dish, saying that it brought the comfort that my soup lacked. This fairly reassuring comment was warming, and we paid the slightly overpriced bill agreeing that the experience had been overall successful, though we weren’t over the moon about any part of it save perhaps the service, which was fairly exceptional. Once our plates were cleared, I took a few minutes to take in the dining room. A fairly minimalist decor featuring a large tree by the host stand and a smattering of pleasant enough landscapes, it suited the zen origins of the establishment, though it was not the most inspiring space in which to enjoy a meal and good company.