The Plant Café Organic Restaurant Puts Down Roots In Burlingame
By Karie Zarsky Bennett (with a little help from her mother, Barbara Gladman)
Photography by Brian Wong of BW Photography
If beauty starts on the inside, the best way to stay gorgeous is to eat beautiful, clean, healthy food. Therein lies the mission of The Plant Café Organic restaurant. There’s a quiet revolution going on, right under our noses. It’s green, it’s organic, and its mission is to make us healthier, and more beautiful, one veggie burger at a time.
The Plant Café Organic restaurant group just opened its sixth Café Organic on a light-filled corner of Burlingame Avenue, and the founders want to change our world by changing how we eat. And, judging by the crowd at lunch on its third day of business, plenty of customers are embracing this healthy fare.
The first Plant Café Organic restaurant opened in the San Francisco Marina neighborhood in 2005. The founders, Mark Lewis and Matthew Guelke never had visions of being restaurateurs. They just wanted to change the way we think about food, and make organic, clean, sustainable food at affordable prices.
The Plant Café Organic isn’t a steakhouse. But it isn’t a strictly vegetarian eatery either (although they offer vegan and gluten-free dishes). Mark and Matthew, with their executive chef, Sascha Weiss, set out to make every menu decision count. They wanted to find ways of leaving out food additives but leaving flavor in, go organic and free range (duck, chicken, and turkey) but also keep a low carbon footprint (hence no red meat or pork), use only sustainable seafood, and basically be conscious of the environment while offering food that is delicious. Their mission is to go head to head with the 99-cent fast food value meals by making the healthy options easy on the wallet. With 6 busy locations to their credit, they are well on their way.
I brought my mother to lunch at The Plant Café Organic in Burlingame on their third day since opening. We were fortunate to meet with the founders, Mark and Matthew, two friendly guys who met through friends of friends while working in the software industry.
Part of the charm of The Plant Café Organic in Burlingame is in the design. Since Burlingame’s nickname is ‘The City of Trees’, it makes sense that the bar was clad in recycled barn wood. The Plant Café Organic’s kitchen recycles, composts, and has extremely low waste production. Yes, their commitment to ecological responsibility is part of the charm. The other part is all about the people. The ‘friends of friends’ who brought people together to make a difference. At the heart of it all, these people want to make the world healthier and more beautiful…so you could say this is a revolutionary food evolution.
The lunch service was in full swing; it was completely full of happy diners, and as we were seated, I heard many people ordering lunch: “I can’t wait to have a Plant Burger!” Over the din of the lunch crowd, Mark and Matthew gave me the history of the restaurant concept, how they met, and what their business’ goals are. These guys were fascinating. They were passionate, interesting, and their belief in their concept was clearly evident. I took 4 pages of notes, but the real story was told as the dishes the guys ordered for us came to the table. So let’s get to the food. Mark and Matthew ordered enough for a small army, so I’ll just describe the highlights.
We started with the fresh juices. Matthew is a fan of the Green infusion with extra kale, broccoli, and wheatgrass—nicknamed ‘Kitchen Sink’, so we tried that. Mark recommended the Skin Refresher, made with cucumber, apple, and strawberry. All were delicious, even the Kitchen Sink. All juices are made from only in-season organic fruits and vegetables. They made a great cocktail—I already felt positively virtuous for having had something healthy.
Moving on to the appetizers: each one was presented beautifully and portion sizes were perfect for sharing.
The Shiitake Spring Rolls were clean, simple, and crisp. The onion peanut sauce was delectable. I asked for some hot sauce, since I’m a spicy food lover, and a bottle of ‘Burn Baby Burn’ sauce was brought to the table. This fire in a bottle is made by the Black Panthers in Oakland, and brings a bit of locally made flavor to the cuisine. It should come with a warning label. This ain’t your grandma’s hot sauce. Use sparingly!
The Crab Cake was a standout from the appetizer offerings. My mother and I both loved this dish. The bright green avocado practically spoke to us from the plate. Combined with cherry tomato halves in a deconstructed salsa, they were at the peak of ripeness and set off the crab cake perfectly. The crab cake itself was a masterpiece. It was jam-packed with freshly picked lump crabmeat, with just enough shallot, carrot, crème fraiche and cayenne to hold its shape. The plump pillow rested on a ribbon of avocado crème fraiche the color of golf course grass. In a word, beautiful.
The salad course was well represented by the Dino Kale Salad with Shrimp. This was an amalgamation of arugula, dinosaur kale, red quinoa, cherry tomatoes, chopped almonds, avocado, carrot, cucumbers, and gently spiced sautéed shrimp. The texture was amazing; each bite was a new combination. The shrimp were firm but not overcooked. The Lemon Cumin Vinaigrette added brightness but didn’t overpower the flavor of the salad. My mother loved how the combination of ingredients changed with every bite. It’s a fun salad.
On to the main course, which started off with the Fish Taco Plate. Halibut was the market fish of the day, pan seared with a little spice rub and tucked into double corn tortillas with cabbage slaw, radish sticks, mango-avocado salsa and a chipotle cream that pulled all the flavor profiles together. A puddle of black beans added a little bit of heat and firm texture. The sweet mango really set off the fish well, and the crunch of the cabbage was a nice contrast to the softness of the halibut. As I always say, ‘have the halibut for the hell of it’, and this is a great way to have it!
The Wild Mushroom Pizza was amazing. The crisp crust and soft, melty-good bed of organic Mozzarella and Parmesan cheese cradled a mixture of wild portabella, crimini, and oyster mushrooms. There is a pizza oven on site and the dough is made fresh daily with organic flour. The bread-to-cheese-to-toppings ratio was perfect, and the mushrooms were toothsome and easily identifiable amid the smooth cheese. A winner in my book.
And now we come to the real standout…the house special, The Plant Burger. Made from a combination of lentils, bulgur wheat, cashews, mushrooms, and beets, the actual recipe’s proportions are the stuff of legend. Chef Weiss’ lips are sealed on this one. The burger patty is pan seared and served nice and crispy on both sides before coming to rest on a soft artisan ciabatta roll. The blanket of melted organic white cheddar and generous slices of avocado shared bun space with caramelized onions, red leaf lettuce, tomato and creamy aioli. The simple mixed green salad, roasted potato wedges and bright, crunchy, house made pickle slices filled up the rest of the plate’s real estate. The flavor of the burger was buttery, nutty, and mushroomy, but the texture was indescribable. Mere words can’t really describe it. You have to try it yourself.
Moving on to desserts, Mark and Matthew felt it was important for us to taste each one, and who were we to argue? Here are a few of my faves:
The Raw Raspberry Cheesecake was divine. Mom says it’s positively fantastic. Made by soaking cashew nuts overnight, pureeing them with young coconut meat, agave nectar and raspberries. This lusciousness rests atop a pecan-date crust, circled by a blackberry pepper sauce that adds a kiss of tartness that is a perfect foil for the sweetness of the cheesecake. It’s definitely a dessert not-to-be-missed.
But it’s the Strawberry Hazelnut Napoleon that’s going to haunt me. I will count the days till I am reunited with this glorious celebration of TCHO* chocolate speckled ricotta cream married with fresh strawberries, sandwiched between crackly-crisp triangles of phyllo-hazelnut toffee. Mom and I were talking about this dessert even after we left the restaurant. This is going to be an obsession, I can already tell.
After a stellar meal, the executive chef, Sascha Weiss, came to the table to meet us. A quiet, mellow guy, Chef Weiss’ background and training started at the Natural Gourmet Institute. Once the Private Chef for George Lucas as well as Executive Pastry chef for an upscale vegan restaurant in San Francisco, Chef Sascha is also an ongoing culinary instructor in the Holistic Nutrition and Culinary Arts program at Bauman College in the Bay Area.
Chef Weiss was introduced to Mark and Matthew by a mutual friend and the synergy was immediately apparent. Chef Weiss talked to us about the way he interprets the founder’s concept of the menu ideas and brings them to the plate. When I wandered off topic and asked him what he does for fun, he says he cooks. When I asked him what hobbies he enjoys, he said he loves to cook. Obviously he’s a chef with a single focus…I like that! When I asked him what message he tries to get across with his food, he said he creates delicious straightforward food that has a vibrancy all its own. Chef Weiss blends spices and ingredients from many cultures to put flavors in the right place. Whether it’s California cuisine, Asian, or Mediterranean, as long as the food tastes as great as possible, he’ll try it.
This is his mission—food that’s globally delicious.
As we finished an amazing meal, the conversation between Mom, Matthew, Mark and myself had barely slowed. We talked about future goals, travel, our backgrounds, and I could see how friendships are just one of the best dishes to come out of the kitchen, so to speak. Nice guys make nice restaurants, and nice restaurants make great food. That is all true in this case.
So if healthy food creates beauty from the inside out, it’s no small wonder that the diners at The Plant Café Organic are the best-looking folks around. I’ll bet a Plant Burger on it.
The Plant Café Organic Burlingame
1395 Burlingame Ave.
Burlingame, CA 94010