Hail Seitan 

Thursday, Sep 15 2005
Photos by Anne FishbeinI suspect that at least half of the people who read the Weekly know more about macrobiotic cooking than I do, that they can recite the five elements and seven principles of the diet backward and forward, and are able to rank vegetables in order of yanginess with one chakra tied behind their backs. Women I trust have lectured me on the excessive heaty qualities of eggplants and tomatoes, although my frontal cortex seems to have filed that information behind a dense matrix of pasta recipes and Iran-Contra trivia. My only real exposure to macrobiotic cooking (which is basically no meat, eggs, dairy or refined sugar) was at a vegetarian restaurant near the Farmers Market, whose most notable attribute was the continued patronage of Michael Jackson — and even that was because I was dragged to the place by a woman I had been attempting to date at the time. I did eat brown rice and stalks of broccoli the size of Louisville Sluggers that night. (I didn’t get laid, but that’s another column.) So I hope you will humor me when I admit that I really like the macrobiotic food at M Café de Chaya — a bright, cheerful diner in a Melrose mini-mall that probably feeds more actresses per square inch than anywhere this side of a craft-services truck — partly because almost anything tastes great when it is made with vegetables bought at a decent growers market in the waning days of summer, but also because the kitchen lets flavor come first. Roasted tomato soup is flavored with red miso not just because the colors are similar, but because the umami-rich tang of the miso works as well with the tomato as Parmesan cheese might.The cafe is owned by the people who run Chaya Venice and Chaya Brasserie, stylish restaurants that happen to serve very good food. The chef of record, Lee Gross, was apparently Gwyneth Paltrow’s personal chef for three years, which in this town is an unimpeachable credential. And Chaya’s maestro, Shigefumi Tachibe, designed the menu, which makes extensive use of local, organic produce. The vegetable sushi here is made not just with brown rice, but with organic, artisanally produced heirloom brown rice, a product exceeded in its purity only by the rice across town at Sushi Mori, whose chef insists on growing his own. Beautiful soy people I’m not especially fond of the pasta made with brown-rice flour or the rather mushy, Indian-tasting falafel. With the exception of a decent blueberry crisp, desserts here have tended to be disappointing — sesame paste does not work as a substitute for pastry cream, no matter how philosophically correct it might be; crusts tend to be tough when made without shortening; and something called a Black Sesame Dome looks and tastes like a bowl of yesterday’s Cream of Wheat. And I haven’t worked my way up to trying the “Carolina-style” barbecued seitan sandwich.But bibimbap, the Korean dish of rice tossed with shredded things and spicy bean paste, can be better than even a Korean specialist when prepared with housemade pickles, sparkling-fresh vegetables and various seaweeds. Crisp, pressed panini made with fresh-baked bread work when the tomatoes are ripe; the pesto is pungent, and the soy “cheese” does a fair impression of squishy fresh mozzarella.As grisly as a macrobiotic club sandwich may sound, the triple-decker itself is pretty good — blackened strips of tempeh “bacon,” as crunchy and one-dimensional as well-done rashers of the real thing; lettuce and tomato, rather tart; and the sweetish goosh of soy mayonnaise is exactly right. I mean the sandwich no offense when I say that it matched up almost exactly with my memories of the club sandwich at the old Colony Coffee Shop in Malibu, a sandwich I ate several times a week the year my mother taught at the nearby elementary school, and I plan to eat M Café’s version again. I may take the sprouts off next time, but you never know.If you’ve ever wondered if people actually wear the $400 jeans you see advertised in Vogue, an hour at M Café can be instructive, a merry parade of slashes the size of coin slots, abraded patches, artfully shredded knees, tattered cuffs and rock-blasted thighs — jeans dragged through obstacle courses of arcane alkaline exfoliants, jackets freckled with frayed holes that suggest a surprise ambush by heavily armed Apaches. If science managed to harness the energy required to distress the denim worn in the course of a single afternoon here, you could probably power an SUV for a year. An hour at one of the sunsplashed tables, spying on the deli cases and the cafeteria-style order line, is some of the best people-watching in town.And if the macrobiotic thing doesn’t agree with you, the finest chili-kraut dogs in the world are available right around the corner at Pink’s.M Cafe de Chaya, 7119 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 525-0588. www.mcafedechaya.com. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. AE, MC, V. Beer and wine. Limited lot parking. Takeout and delivery. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $18-$25.

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