When I went to the Gratitude, the new Newport Beach outpost of the vegan restaurant chain, I saw a characteristic common to the past few such eateries I reviewed: The dishes are given code names. The ravioli isn't called ravioli; it's called the Authentic. I didn't order the pizza; I asked for the Giving. Actually, I think I was doing it all wrong. According to a few people I talked to, these titles are supposed to be affirmations. They are to be said after the words "I am." So rather than telling the waiter, "I'd like to order the roasted beet salad and the Indian red dal," I should've said, "I am Gifted and Humble," which sounds more contradictory than silly.
More motivational psychobabble is found on the company's mission statement: "We invite you to step inside and enjoy being someone that chooses: loving your life, adoring yourself, accepting the world, being generous and grateful every day, and experiencing being provided for."
Rather than that Stuart Smalley-esque sentence, I think Gratitude should have just stated its strongest selling point: It's a vegan restaurant that doesn't use fake meat. Mushrooms sub in for beef, tempeh is used to emulate the dense texture of animal flesh, but nothing involving textured soy protein is found anywhere. In fact, I've yet to find anything that tasted unnatural or lab-concocted in its dishes. Nothing I swallowed seemed less than fresh and wholesome. The food, unlike at other vegan places, doesn't seem reverse-engineered. Instead, Gratitude actually uses produce and cooks them as is, you know, with fire and stuff.
Its best dish is the samosa, which it borrows from India, a meatless culture that has mastered making vegetables and grains palatable for thousands of years before the invention of Tofurkey and Soyrizo. The kitchen staff is so fluent in Indian spices and techniques that Gratitude's samosas would pass muster if they were served in Artesia's Indian enclave. In fact, I can honestly say these yam-and-cauliflower-stuffed tetrahedrons may be better than any others I've had lately. The crust was so tender it collapsed under its own weight. A refreshing coconut-mint chutney and candy-sweet tomato jam slathered it. And underneath it all, the spicy and complex chana masala was so good my friends and I fought over the last spoonful.
Gratitude's Authentic is certainly that. The ravioli were served five to a plate on dewy greens and filled with a ricotta-like substance made from cashews. But the dish's greatest achievement was how the chefs managed to make the pasta without the use of a single egg. In fact, the texture and mouth-feel was so dead-on I propose a better name for it: Uncanny.
The Italian meatballs—made by chopping up eggplant and forming it into spheres—were another triumph. They came draped in a marinara that tasted like, well, marinara. But if the texture only vaguely approximated real meatballs, the waves of flavor made up for it. At the next table, a husband took a forkful from his wife's plate and promptly ordered another one for himself.
Gratitude also tries its hand at Mexican food in the tostada, arguably its most popular dish despite the $9 price tag. And just as with the samosa, you enjoy it without even thinking about it. The cashew queso fresco, the chunks of portobello, beans so rich they seemed as though they were prepared with lard—they all melded together under the skull-rattling crunch of the tostada shell.
There is, of course, kale in all forms. The best incarnation was as wispy chips served with a garlic tahini dipping sauce. There were also some not-so-successful dishes. The pad Thai made of kelp noodles would've been better if they didn't invoke the expectation that it would taste like the common takeout dish—it's closer to a cold noodle salad. And though I liked the toppings on the pizza, the crust had the personality of a frozen Celeste I microwaved last week with one of those crisping sheets.
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By far, my least favorite dish was the Southern soul-food sampler in which red beans and rice, yams, stir-fried collard greens, coleslaw, tempeh, and a gluten-free biscuit kind of just sat together on the plate discordantly. The chore of eating it reminded me this was a vegan joint.
This becomes a big disservice to the place because Gratitude doesn't look and feel like a vegan restaurant. It's noisy, full of beautiful people in beautiful clothes and employs Jason Eisner, a hip bartender from LA known for making craft cocktails such as a gin and tonic served in a bong with a haze of tea smoke. There's no fancy mantra attached to the drink—it's just called a gin and tonic, all the affirmation you need.
Gratitude, 1617 Westcliff Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 386-8100; cafegratitude.com. Open daily, 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $50-$75, food only. Full bar.