We have not yet reached Peak Vegan in Los Angeles, though we're getting awfully close. There is, of course, the positive-thinking and grain-bowl mecca Cafe Gratitude, now with two L.A. locations and one more on the way. There's an option for special-occasion meat-free dining in the excellent cooking of Tal Ronnen and staff at Crossroads. We even have a high-end vegan cheese shop.
One of the more curious trends to emerge in the past few months is meat-loving chefs opening vegetarian restaurants with ironically meaty names. Scratch Bar's Phillip Franklin Lee opened the Gadarene Swine in Studio City in September, serving oddities such as peanut butter on toast with prunes, arugula and pickled mushrooms. And there's the forthcoming Beefsteak from Top Chef alum Marcel Vigneron. Both chefs are known for their love of pork belly and foie gras, and while the impulse to test oneself by limiting ingredient choice is kind of interesting, the results thus far have been more strange than successful. As for the tongue-in-cheek names? The vegetarians I know are not amused.
The Springs, the new raw/vegan restaurant in the downtown Arts District, is more to the liking of my serious meat-eschewing pals. Located in an industrial building that also houses Farm Sanctuary, the nonprofit group that rescues farm animals, the 14,000-square-foot Springs is more in line with old-school veganism. It is a juice bar and yoga studio, an eco-friendly retailer, a spa and wellness center. Among the services offered are lifestyle and nutritional coaching and free meditation classes. Or you could sign up for the $325 New Year special detox package, which includes a three-day juice cleanse, two weeks of unlimited yoga and one colon hydrotherapy session. Its website advertises it as an "eco-vegan-mind-body-one-stop-shop." On the "about us" page, each team member's bio begins with his or her star sign.
Those team members include founders Jared Stein (Sagittarius, former prepper), Kimberly Helms (Gemini, loves dragonflies, babies, triangles, yoga, pickles and sauvignon blanc) and chef Michael Falso (Libra, truth seeker). Falso previously worked at L.A.'s other mecca of raw food, Matthew Kenney's M.A.K.E. in Santa Monica.
The space is massive and airy with impossibly high ceilings, and sports flashes of bright color against its slate-gray, industrial cinderblock foundation. A long bar runs down one side of the room, and in the daytime it already has the feel of a laid-back utopian hangout, full of good-looking creative types sipping cold-pressed juices while they tap away on MacBook Pros, all tattoos and beards and flowing dresses, discussing screenplays and the benefits of avoiding refined sugar and grains.
Falso's menu spans breakfast, lunch and dinner, moving from coconut "yogurt" parfait on to salads, which make up most of the lunch menu, to more ambitious dinner entrees. Nothing is heated beyond 118 degrees, meaning that a lot of tricks are used to create different textures, and in some cases to mimic the taste and feel of cooked foods.
The salads are absolutely gigantic — you can get them in half portions, which can easily feed two people. There is no shortage of flavor in combinations such as tea leaves, kale, romaine, pumpkin seeds, sesame cashews, cherry tomatoes and sprouts, and in fact some salads are downright overwhelming. The surprisingly spicy tea leaf salad I just described in no way resembles a Burmese tea leaf salad, which relies more on nuts and smoky tea leaves and less on hunks of raw kale.
A falafel salad combines romaine, mixed greens, tahini dressing, harissa, quinoa tabouli and za'atar crackers with "falafel," which has a kind of dense, pasty texture, like that tacky, date-based superfood hiking stuff. The salads are all good for you; they'll fill you up and be interesting to eat. They fall short of actually being pleasurable, in general, but they're compelling enough that you might not notice.
At dinner, you can get a vegan cheese plate, made up of cashew or pine nut cheeses, which are very yellow and very tangy. Whether or not they taste like real cheese is perhaps beside the point — for cheese eaters, they will seem salty and a little disconcerting; for vegans they will be a revelation.
At dinner, entrees such as "pasta carbonara" do a valiant job of creating heft without meat, dairy or cooked carbs. The pasta — made from kelp and zucchini — comes bathed in cream made from something that isn't cream, with chewy, smoky coconut chips standing in for bacon. The whole thing is a little gloopy, but it tastes hearty, which is no easy feat.
Unsurprisingly, there's a cold-pressed juice element, and in fact the press materials upon opening insisted that the Springs would be like "a speakeasy for juices." I'm not sure what that signals, exactly, and it says more about the absolute meaninglessness of the word "speakeasy" these days than it does anything about the Springs' juice offerings. They do have a lot of juice, which comes in thick glass like old-fashioned milk bottles, but I guess "a lot of juice" doesn't sound quite as badass. Organic and sustainable wine and beer are available if the juice isn't quite celebratory enough for you.
Like every raw food experience I've ever had (including a one-time 10-day raw diet — it was for research purposes, I swear), the food at the Springs suffers from the problem of palate exhaustion. That is, all of this food hits high on the palate, and the bass notes that generally help to balance those acidic, vegetal flavors — such as rice, or bread, or cooked potato — never appear. Add super-acidic juice to the equation and, even with the often grounding nut elements in many of these dishes, your taste buds can end up weary, scrubbed and longing for something, well, cooked.
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Once you're done noshing on your seaweed Caesar salad with pine nut parmesan, and sipping your apple, fennel, cucumber and dandelion "forager" juice, mosey on over to the retail area, where you can buy an eco-friendly $495 caftan made from the softest cotton, or a handmade, $192 wonky-ass dream-catcher that looks like a prop from The Blair Witch Project.
For those of us not fully sold on the lifestyle the Springs offers — that is, a fairly expensive, feel-good, stylish bohemian hippie paradise — it's an awfully easy target. But the truth is, The Springs is far better at catering to the needs of people who actually want this kind of food, this kind of life, than many of the other vegan restaurants opening up around town, some of which treat the vegan aspect as a vehicle for personal ambition rather than a heartfelt attempt to be inclusive of a growing segment of the dining population. The Springs is a beautiful space; it provides a breezy, comfortable place to hang out and eat healthily and fairly well, and it offers full-time vegans dishes that are complex and surprising, dynamic and full of flavor.
It's not the best vegan food in town, nor is it likely to convert those of us who go in with a skeptical eye. But it's ambitious and utterly sincere, and when we do eventually reach Peak Vegan, people will blame and credit the Springs in equal measure.
THE SPRINGS | Two stars | 608 Mateo St., dwntwn. | (213) 223-6226 | thespringsla.com | Mon.-Thu., 7 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fri, 7 a.m.-mid.; Sat. 9 a.m.-mid.; Sun., 9 a.m.-11 p.m. | Entrees, $19-$23 | Beer and wine | Lot and street parking