About 18 months ago, a friend of mine named Jennifer Diener got a new puppy from a Japanese woman who occasionally breeds Golden Retrievers as therapy and service dogs. Which rather strangely explains how I was sitting recently in a new macrobiotic, vegan restaurant in West L.A. having dinner with the Dieners and Kirsten Gum, a 'Raw' chef. You see, that Japanese woman, Sanae Suzuki, is married to and partnered with her husband, Chef Eric Lechasseur, a celebrated vegan chef to the stars (Tobey McGuire, Madonna), in a Venice vegan restaurant, Seed Kitchen, a raffish place which sees the likes of Tobey, Leo, Sting, Paltrow, Woody Harrelson and hordes of people who love the (healthy) food, which chef Eric has been turning out.
Their love story, together 20 years and married for 7, is lovely and often anguishing. In 1992, Sanea was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She needed treatment but had no health insurance, no money, no family. She turned for help to her best friend, Eric. They decided to try a plant-based macrobiotic diet to help her fight the illness. Together they studied what that entailed, while Eric -- a classically trained French chef -- was working at a restaurant in Venice. He didn't know a thing about vegan or macrobiotic food, but together they learned. He quickly mastered the art of preparing beautiful and delicious food using the time-tested principles. Soon after cooking and eating this way, Eric's own health problems (allergies) receded, and by 1993 he had committed himself to only cooking this food professionally. By 1995 Sanae had recovered from her ailment! She became an expert teacher of the macrobiotic way of life. (Some years later she suffered a near-fatal car accident in the Arizona desert, and her healthful ways have helped her to partially recover from this.) By 1999 they established their own company, mugen LLC, to prepare and package macrobiotic foods, and some years later opened the Venice-based Pacific Avenue eatery.
Now Japanese-born Sanae and Quebec-born Eric have opened a much more upscale, lovely restaurant, Seed Bistro (11917 Wilshire Blvd, in West L.A. between Barrington and Bundy), 310- 477-7070, with $4.50 valet parking.). Jennifer called me after attending a friends-and-family pre-opening dinner last week to say that we had to come here soon 'cause the food was absolutely delicious. My readers well know that I abhor such terms as macrobiotic, vegan, vegetarian... I think of myself as a meat-and-potatoes gourmet. But I am writing these words after returning from the second, rather astonishing and truly delicious dinner at the new eatery. The dishes were tasty, surprisingly varied, and I don't feel stuffed and surfeited, the usual aftermath of a regular dinner.
Someone asked me today "What do you eat in a macrobiotic, vegan restaurant?" and I replied that you eat very well and deliciously. But first be aware that you will also drink beautifully here, for they have a superb boutique wine list, mostly organic or those vineyards utilizing sustainable wine-growing practices. I drank lots of Sake and Prosecco, but the choices of red, white and rose were excellent, and they carry several Belgian ales and organic beers. I finished my meal with a rich almond latte ($4) which would have done Peet's proud.
We started with several salads, and their signature one is a kale, quinoa, avocado, lemon wasabi, nori dill one ($12), fresh and delicious... but my favorite is the Three Seaweed Salad, with bean sprouts and soy ginger ($11). Love crunchy, briny seaweed, all three different. On my second visit, Jenna Rose Robbins ordered a Baby Romaine Caesar Salad ($9) with pepitas, tomato, and cashew cheese *which tasted exactly like blue cheese.) Soups (all $5) are deeply flavorful, especially the Three Vegetable Miso broth. Small plates include a deeply tasty Green Chickpea Hummus ($9) and Grilled Mushrooms with Yukon potatoes ($8). I happen to love beets, so the roasted ones with avocado and grapefruit ($9) did me up fine. Edamame with sea salt ($6) of course. But last night we had a Mushroom Green Pepper Pate with cornichons and gelee ($9) which tasted like a fresh version of chopped liver! It is addictive.
The real fun starts with the entrees, imagine a vegetarian, gluten-free Penne Bolognese ($15) that almost matched in flavor and richness the best (beefy) version from Valentino. And then there is a Seitan Pepper Steak ($14), dressed with watercress and fork-mashed potatoes... I won't spoil your surprise, but you will be pleasantly astonished at this dish, as you gobble it up. I happen to be a nut about good Paella, and the wonderful dish here is made with brown rice mixed with bell peppers, green peas, onions, saffron ($21). The chef sent out with our knowledgeable wait person, Whitney Lovell, a Cassoulet ($18) made with flageolet beans, celery, carrots, and apple sausage. You know that no meat products are used, so how could we have sausages in the dish? Wait and be so surprised. Jenna loves her mushrooms, so we ended the dinner with Stuffed Shiitakes ($18) with millet and fresh vegetables, in a robust romesco sauce. I didn't love some of the 'raw' dishes we had, but people around us were enjoying every one of them... a Cucumber Jicama Roll ($8) and Kelp Noodles in a coconut turmeric soup. Chef Eric offers a Tasting Menu of his exquisitely-prepared fresh, seasonal and organic ingredients chosen at his whim... four courses for $45 and six courses for $60.
When asked what constitutes macrobiotic cooking, Sanae replied, "Food is personal, and ours doesn't contain any animal products, dairy, eggs or refined sugar. So you might think it is bland and tasteless, but you will be wrong." I can attest that just the opposite is true. It is full of flavor and texture, stunningly presented. "We use mainly locally-grown organic products, whole grains, vegetables and fruits to do 'takes' on some of your favorite classics." Having enjoyed the penne Bolognese, cassoulet and the paella, I knew what she meant, but when I tasted Eric's Southwestern Burger for lunch this week ($12), I really got it! The best veggie burger ever, and it rivaled almost any traditional beef burger I have ever had (except, perhaps the In & Out of my dreams.)
The tasty burger patty itself was made of beans and whole grain, served on a ciabatta bun, garnished with vegan soy cheese, guacamole and the ancho chile spread which gave it a smoky southwestern flavor. (And the vinaigrette coleslaw served with it was delicious as well.) Their donburi macro bowl ($12) and Blackened Tempeh burger ($12) also are astonishing. Think crispy sweet potato fries, slightly salty and sweet, and you get the picture. Deserts will also astonish, for the Chocolate Mousse and Lemon Tarte could have come from Spago's kitchen. Soon to come is Madonna's legendary coconut mousse. No sugar rush, but they satisfy my sweet tooth.
Eric told me that at least 50 percent of his customers are meat eaters, "but if you cook well and know how to balance herbs, spices and salt, there's no reason why you wouldn't like this vegan food." Listen, I was the last one in the world to dig this experience, a jaded restaurant critic for many years, addicted to prime rare beef, foie gras and fried foods. But this food was so delicious, so clean tasting and healthy, it made my insides smile. I will be back at least once a week to Seed Bistro, mainly to reorient myself to what I should be doing right and how delicious it can be. Everyone in L.A. should come here once a week or at least once a month to get reoriented with a fix. (They have a devoted coterie of people who regularly come from Pasadena.) Sanae's new book, Love, Sanae, is now out ($50) and available at the restaurant. It details her own journey of healing through macrobiotics and the recipes (with pictures) she used. "If you want to eat healthy, you have to learn to cook the basic stuff," she told me. "We never use microwaves or non-stick pans. We believe that food is an essential source of our energy, health and happiness. This restaurant is a seed we have planted, and as we look around at the enthusiastic diners, the seeds of change seems to be blossoming." Fascinating.
Seed Bistro is open for lunch M-F from 11:30 am to 2 pm and dinner M-Sat. from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m..
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