Sometimes it seems as though culture is just a series of backlashes, a boomerang that ricochets from one idea or style or taste directly to the opposite. Right now, after years of pork belly worship, of foie gras overload and offal idolatry, we have swung into the age of the vegetable, an odd era in which meat-loving chefs open vegan restaurants and salads get as much respect as steaks.
I've joked that it's overfed food writers pushing the vegetable agenda, but of course it's more complicated. We writers are not as influential as all that, and the culture as a whole is more aware of the environmental concerns of meat production as well as the welfare of the animals we do or do not eat. It also would be foolish to suppose that the current scourge of obesity doesn't affect our pleasure-seeking eating habits. Besides, vegetables are delicious.
Of course, Moby, musician and pioneer in the creative class's great New York–to-L.A. migration, has been a practicioner and vocal proponent of plant-based eating since before it was a food-world trend — since back when it was reserved for hippies and true believers in the meat-is-murder movement. If Moby is most famous for his music, veganism is a close second, and in his new life as a restaurateur, he's hoping to showcase just how good vegan food can be. At Little Pine in Silver Lake, he's presenting 100 percent organic, vegan food in the context of a neighborhood restaurant, one that you may not even realize is vegan.
There are some things about Little Pine that represent just how far veganism has come in the past few years. The space is beautiful in a comfortable kind of way, pure Silver Lake in its aesthetic, its art deco exterior giving way to a midcentury vibe inside. The light-wood shelves that line one wall are full of books and candles and nature-themed ephemera, all for sale thanks to a city zoning requirement that dictates part of the space must be retail. Little Pine feels like the breezy yet cozy home of an impossibly stylish friend, and this effect is made all the more pronounced by the fact that most of the customers look like that friend.
The fantastic, all-organic wine list was originally curated by Domaine L.A.'s Jill Bernheimer, and the mix of bottles from forward-thinking French and American producers is one of the best things about the restaurant.
In these respects — the design, the focus on good wine — Little Pine joins a new generation of vegan and vegetarian eateries in L.A., ones that put good taste as high on the list of priorities as politics. There's certainly a market for it: Crossroads, the best of L.A.'s vegan restaurants (Moby is an investor), is perpetually busy, and Little Pine has been hard to get into at normal dinner hours since opening in November.
But the existence of places like Crossroads puts Little Pine in a different light, one less flattering than the pleasing golden hue of its dining room. In a city with quite a few excellent options for vegan and vegetarian dining, and in an era when non-vegetarian restaurants often offer plentiful and delicious meat- and dairy-free dishes, the food at Little Pine suffers by comparison.
This may be in part due to the fact that Little Pine is operating without a chef — opening chef Kristyne Starling has left her position, and a team of three sous chefs now is running the kitchen. The menu is an odd mix of the types of things vegetarians have to turn to when eating in less accommodating traditional restaurants (tomato soup, simple salads) and the types of things that are based on meat or dairy products (and therefore must rely on imitation). There is very little middle ground. Few dishes are unabashedly veggie-centric, and when they are, they're hardly more thoughtful than the side of Brussels sprouts you'd get at any old restaurant.
Little Pine's vegetable dishes don't get much more complex than a small serving of intensely lemony chopped wild mushrooms with a little flurry of arugula on top. The dish's description would indicate some kind of medley, but if there was anything other than maitakes, they were impossible to detect. There's a farro salad with pomegranate seeds, walnuts and small cubes of butternut squash, and its simple heartiness made for perhaps the most enjoyable savory dish I had at Little Pine. But still, you could get something similar — and probably more dynamic — from the Whole Foods cold case.
The cooking problems here go so much farther than what can be explained away by the absence of meat or dairy. Many things lack salt or acid or fresh herbs or anything that might brighten a dish, while other things swim in acid, so much so that it obliterates other flavors. That was the case with those mushrooms, which had way too much lemon and no salt to speak of, and it was true of a panzanella salad mainly comprised of huge hunks of crusty bread soaked in so much vinegar that it was difficult to eat more than a couple of bites. I was able to detect a sliver of avocado here and there, but the “market vegetables” mentioned on the menu remain a mystery.
Pasta dishes, made with vegan cream and cheese, mainly taste like nothing much at all, under-seasoned and textureless. A hearty entree of sausage and polenta comes close to working; the house-made Italian sausage (not real meat, of course) paired with tangy tomato sauce almost tricks the brain into experiencing that meat-meets-sauce glory that the best sloppy Italian food delivers. But that sensation dissipates when you approach the spears of fried polenta, their utter blandness and odd, crumbly texture pulling you out of the fantasy.
I know vegans sometimes long for the taste and feel of sausage between their teeth, the creaminess of mac and cheese or the bounce of egg salad, and I admit that for meat eaters — myself included — the faux version will never live up to the real deal. But vegan food has come so far, and there's so much of it that actually tastes good, fake meat and all. It may not be my favorite way to eat, but it's often far better than this.
I also wish there was more delight taken in actual fruits and vegetables. At lunch, the sausage sandwich again comes close to fulfilling its potential, but it's a little dry, a little too bready. What a difference roasted peppers might make, or broccoli rabe, or something to make this more than just a way to say, “Look, I'm a sausage sandwich that's vegan!” A vegan restaurant should serve the best salads in town and make the best vegetable soups, not wan versions of things that are often already vegan elsewhere. One night when I inquired about the “seasonal fruit plate” on the menu, the server told me it was made up of apples, blueberries and raspberries — the same fruits, I'm assuming, that are used to make the berry and apple cobbler also on the dessert list. What's seasonal in the dead of winter about apples and berries? I know we can grow almost anything in California at any time of year, but if that's the case why even bother using the word “seasonal”?
I skipped the fruit plate and instead went for a chocolate cream pie, which was topped with coconut-based whipped cream. Was the crust a little stiff compared to other butter-laden crusts? Was the texture not exactly that of a pie made with dairy? Of course. But given those constraints, this pie was masterful, silky and chocolaty and delicious, a treat for me and likely a true thrill for a vegan craving the kind of decadence that's hard to find while trying to eat morally.
But in this age of vegan cupcakes and vegan ramen and vegetable fetishism, inspiring plant-based food actually isn't so hard to come by, especially in Los Angeles. Little Pine is a beautiful restaurant with a lovely staff and a really cool wine list. That all the profits are being donated to animal-welfare groups makes it even more altruistic, and I'm sure for many vegans it's a welcome relief to have another nice place to eat without the stress of avoidance.
But if Moby is setting out to show diners that a vegan diet can be satisfying and delicious — as he's said he hopes to do — the current offerings at Little Pine are unlikely to make that case.
LITTLE PINE | One star | 2870 Rowena Ave., Silver Lake | (323) 741-8148 | littlepinerestaurant.com | Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner: Sun.-Thu., 5-10:30 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 5-11 p.m. Brunch: Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Coffee and pastries, 3-5 p.m. daily. | Plates, $6-$16 | Beer and wine | Limited lot parking