There's a cutesy claim that's deployed a lot these days at a certain brand of meat-free restaurant: "The food just happens to be vegan!" It's a nice thought, but what they really mean to say is, "We limited ourselves for creative reasons, and not because we're hippies who care about animals." That doesn't have quite the same ring to it, does it?
If the food were Indian, perhaps, or inspired by various Middle Eastern traditions, it might be believable that the chef followed his or her muse and the customs of the cuisine, and that those things led to food that contained no meat or dairy. But the new brand of vegan restaurant, run by chefs who are not vegan (or even vegetarian) themselves, is far more calculated than all that. If the food is vegan, it's that way by design; there is no "happens to be" about it.
Ten years ago, when Ubuntu opened in Napa Valley serving a 100 percent plant-based menu, the idea of a high-end, meat-free restaurant was fairly revolutionary. It was clear that chef Jeremy Fox was working from a conceptual rather than a moral ethos. He wanted to test the boundaries of what could be done in a kitchen without the use of animal products, not because he didn't believe in eating animals but because it was an interesting creative and philosophical exercise. Once his time at Ubuntu was done, he went back to using meat when and where it felt right, and is now doing so — to great effect — at Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica. But a decade later, his idea seems to have caught on, and all of a sudden Los Angeles has a number of restaurants with meat-eating chefs serving meat-free menus.
The most interesting of these might be Erven, the Santa Monica restaurant that employs the hashtag (on its website and elsewhere) #coincidentallyvegan. The place is named for its chef, Nick Erven, who captured our attention a couple of years back at Saint Martha in Koreatown, where he worked in an open kitchen under a neon sign that read "hipster," and served modernist dishes such as seaweed "doritos" with sea urchin tataki and avocado mousse. Saint Martha was an immensely playful restaurant, one that showcased Erven's talent for inventive cooking that was fun but also elegant. That it closed after less than two years was sad but also somehow befitted the freewheeling, experimental nature of the place. Erven (the man) was for a brief while the chef at Fundamental L.A. before joining forces with some of his Saint Martha business partners to open Erven (the restaurant).
Erven is one of those double-storefront eateries that feels all inviting and glowy from the outside, especially on these rare rainy winter nights, and that feeling extends long after you've entered. Often there's a complimentary taste of cider or some other beverage when you're seated, and I've rarely come across service so gracious and enthusiastic as what the servers at Erven manage, even when they're exceedingly busy.
It helps that they are obviously true believers in this food. If you choose prudently from the menu, you might come to share their enthusiasm. Plenty of dishes here showcase that same playfulness and bright creativity that made Saint Martha so appealing.
Seated under a giant image of Mick Jagger making out with Gandhi (Because veganism is rock & roll? Who knows?) you'd be wise to order the chickpea fritters, turned inky with the addition of activated charcoal and black garlic. The severely square snacks possess a subtle, roasty sweetness, which is offset by the zing of yuzu. Many of Erven's best dishes rely on this kind of acidity, which seems to come from left field in the best possible way. Soft tofu arrives in a bowl under a flurry of almost-charred Brussels sprout leaves — a nice textural juxtaposition — but the real thrill is the puckery one-two punch of pickled garlic ponzu and lime-cured onion.
Kale cavatelli is served in a stunningly bright "tom yum gravy," along with squash, hen of the woods mushrooms and pears. When executed well, the sweetness of the squash and the crunch of the pears and the thick, coconut-heavy gravy balance one another beautifully. I had this dish one night, though, when the flavor proportions were all out of whack, when brightness was all you could taste. And both times I had it, the kale cavatelli was a little leaden and pasty. Texture is often one of the big issues with vegan cooking (especially when it goes beyond veggies and grains), and Erven can't quite avoid the pitfall here. Gnocchi, which came in a bowl with chickpeas and slivers of okra and a surprisingly tame "tomato kimchi soup," also had a ponderous consistency, hidden under a slightly crunchy skin that was almost helpful and almost disconcerting.
For all of Erven's creativity, there are dishes here that taste like what you might make if you threw everything from your farmers market box into a pot and hoped for the best. A farro and black-eyed pea hot pot, with braised greens and preserved tomato, was a little too much like the communal house vegan meals I had far too many of as the child of hippies. Savory bread pudding, topped with mushroom chili, broccoli and spicy squash, was a little more texturally decadent. "This tastes like what they might serve at the best vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco, circa 1984," I said to my tablemates. I'm not sure what I meant, exactly, except that the dish could only be viewed generously with a number of caveats in place: The bread pudding was fine for vegetarian food; for vegan food; for pre-Ubuntu; for the pre–veggie worship era. For 2017, for Nick Erven? It's just OK.
It was clear that at Saint Martha, Erven was still working out who he was as a chef. He played at the edges of molecular modernity, and tested the bounds of what was fun and what was just silly. He almost always landed on the right side of that divide. I sensed that in his next evolution, we might get a chef more fully formed and steady. So it's a little odd to have that evolution be the meatless Erven. The experiment makes more sense in the career, for instance, of Josef Centeno, who recently opened the vegetable-focused PYT, after already establishing himself and his style (and his vegetable wizardry) very clearly at numerous other restaurants, many of which are still in business.
I'd like to have seen more of what Erven could do before he limited himself so severely. It's true — and great — that some of the food he's making now is as good as anything he's done in the past, when he wasn't constraining himself to veganism. But there's also a fair amount that seems clumsy in comparison with the weird elegance of Saint Martha.
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Limitations are certainly capable of spurring creativity. But sometimes they're just limiting. Erven the restaurant is worthy on its own terms, particularly for those guests who actually are vegan. But I do hope to see a broader, caveat-free effort sometime soon from Erven the man.
ERVEN | Two stars | 514-516 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica | (310) 260-2255 | ervenrestaurant.com | Lunch: daily 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner: Sun.-Thu., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-10:30 p.m. Cafe/to-go marketplace, daily, 11 a.m.-close | Shared plates, $5-$21 | Beer and wine | Street parking; nighttime valet on Fifth Street near Santa Monica Boulevard