Having worked through its dark ages and its well-documented renaissance, the Culver City restaurant scene is entering its mannerist phase, an era of sleek surfaces and exaggerated details, theatrical settings and food that coolly defies nature. Encouraged by the experiment-loving yet solvent young studio workers who throng the sidewalks and pack the city parking structures with their MINI Coopers and Priuses, the restaurants that line Culver Boulevard run on biodynamic wines and homemade absinthe, sidewalk tables and Chilewich place mats, shade-grown organic coffee and cattle raised with the care that was once reserved for suburban kindergartners. I wouldn’t be surprised if the blocks surrounding the old Culver Hotel were responsible for more goat-cheese consumption per square inch than anywhere else on the planet. (The next chapter, involving well-heeled national chains, has unfortunately already begun.)
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Spicy and juicy: The normally unlovable turkey burger taken seriously
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Perfectly crisp: Akasha's onion rings
There are a lot of mannerist places to eat in Culver City, from the Japanophile museum/café staffed by young women wearing maid’s costumes (Royal/T) and the ultra-expensive architects’ canteen (Wilson) to the urban-rustic bistro, where each organic beet seems to have been blessed with a faerie’s kiss (Ford’s Filling Station). But the standard-bearer at the moment must be the eco-intensive restaurant Akasha, a show place fitted into the old San Gennaro space, where the recycled wood is sealed with beeswax, the lights are low-energy, the chairs are upholstered in hemp and the waiters wear organic cotton. The wines are mostly organic. And the breakfast frittatas are made with organic eggs. There are even high-tech waterless urinals in the men’s room, which may be a step or two beyond where even the greenest restaurateurs want to go.
Akasha Richmond, who is both chef and muse to the restaurant, is one of the best-known vegan cooks in the world, the spokesperson for a brand of soymilk, a columnist for Vegetarian Times, a television chef and a caterer for every skinny actress who has ever appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly. She spent years as the tour chef for Michael Jackson, who plucked her from his favorite restaurant, the macrobiotic Temple of Conscious Cookery near the Farmers Market, and she’s been the personal chef for Barbra Streisand, among others. The woman knows from a mung bean, in other words — her bowl of curried mung beans, rice and flatbread is the kind of thing you always used to hope for when you visited a hippie restaurant, and lovers of parsnips, quinoa and wood-grilled artichokes will find themselves at home.
And there is a significant bar scene — cocktails made with things like organic vodka, fresh carrot juice and acai; rustic natural wines; and a delicious hibiscus elixir.
Still, while the kitchen’s commitment to organic, sustainable, certified, cruelty-free ingredients goes without saying, Richmond personally started eating meat when she began a weight-lifting regimen a couple of years ago, and her cooking is surprisingly sybaritic: skewered, curry-dusted grilled shrimp; a decent roast chicken with farro; killer sweet-potato fries and a big, juicy Heritage pork chop served on a potato-like slurry of mashed white beans. I like the nicely rare seared scallops served with a numbing bit of long pepper and a mound of jet-black “forbidden rice.” The best item on the menu is probably Akasha’s onion rings, battered with rice flour and perfectly crisp. If what you want is steak and fries, you’re going to do pretty well here — the meat comes from the Coleman Ranch in Colorado, and the fries, although they may be sprinkled with hand-grated Himalayan gray salt, are fries.
But there are a lot of people who don’t like Akasha, and it isn’t hard to understand why. If you’re going to serve a bowl of quinoa with edamame, no matter what confluence of Zen and ancient Inca wisdom the dish may signify, it should probably taste like something more than carefully steamed packing peanuts. (As a dedicated pork-belly partisan, I have to admit that the dish was just not meant for me, as the virtues of the best menudo in Guadalajara would be lost on a vegan.) There’s a reason hummus is traditionally made with chickpeas instead of cannelini beans, and even the waiters tend to steer you away from the crisp little slow-cooked-broccoli pizzas, which are not as compelling as the restaurant’s pizzas topped with La Quercia prosciutto and Oregon Gorgonzola.
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You can eat as low on the food chain as you like at Akasha. But a restaurant serving its customers hemp-seed-crusted tofu salad for lunch is just asking for it. (My memories of the hemp burger at Woody Harrelson’s old Oxygen Bar are going to take years of therapy to expunge.) Yet, that salad is, in fact, pretty good, thin wedges of firm tofu rolled in nutty drifts of the seed and served on what is probably a platonic version of the greens you may have grown up eating at the Good Earth or the Source, enriched with shreds of carrots and daikon, a few sprouts of indeterminate origin and a miso-based dressing that could pass for buttermilk ranch if you didn’t think about it too hard. The vegan pimiento-“cheese” sandwich Akasha thought up for Billy Bob Thornton might seem of interest only to Us magazine, but the pink, spicy rice-milk product oozes properly, and the small bowl of “cream”-of-tomato soup is nice, a vegan version of a mom’s rainy-day lunch. Even her version of a turkey burger, that unlovable creation, is surprisingly edible, flavored with all manner of peppers, quite spicy and juicy enough to drip.
You may not be tempted to order something like a chocolate-hemp gelato for dessert, but you should probably suspend your prejudices for a minute, or two — the mellowness of the hemp marries shockingly well with the smoky organic chocolate, and you get some caramelized banana slices too.
Akasha, 543 Culver Blvd., Culver City, (310) 845-1700 or www.akasharestaurant.com. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Full bar. Valet parking and city-lot parking around the corner. AE, MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $52-$96. Recommended dishes: Punjabi mung beans and rice; Heritage country pork chop; scallops with forbidden rice; grilled artichoke; lemon meringue tart.