Billie Holliday is camping on Stanley Street, her voice near-crackling through the speakers in an upstairs joint that seems like a rough transplant of kitschery into the middle of our business district. Lining the walls are the knick-knacks, posters, games and symbols of 1950s Americana – San Francisco, to be precise. The owners, Paul and Bess Choi, spared nothing to get the desired effect, shipping an entire container of paraphernalia – old ice skates, dated advertisements, a flag of the Californian Republic, signed football and helmet from the 49ers – from San Francisco, their recent home, to create an atmosphere of pure, unabashed Americanism (the fun, wholesome kind, not the brash, militant version).
The atmosphere is a refreshing addition to our American-themed dining scene, and it's a successful deviation from the gigantic servings, big meat formula employed by the likes of Fat Angelo's, Dan Ryan's and the Flying Pan. Unlike those chain restaurants, Veggie SF is a decidedly stoic individual. The only wine and beer on sale, for example, is non-alcoholic, to meet the no-booze requirement of Bess, a Buddhist.
While the Chinese-American owners have done a fine job on interior design and creating a sense of atmosphere, the menu, still in its early stages, has some catching up to do. The focus here, as you might have guessed from its name, is on organic vegetarian food, and while the ingredients used are fresh and simple, this is not a menu that is going to capture your imagination.
When we visited, the cafe was offering a set dinner for $168 per person. No complaints with the number of courses: a soup followed by a salad, a main and a dessert. I added $10 to try the imported mango-orange soda with my set, but I also had the choice of yogi teas or coffees. My dining partner was pleased with her sweet mocha, made with Ghirardelli chocolate.
We liked the fact the smooth carrot and ginger soup was brought out first to stave off the cold weather, and while it was a little zingy with a sweet finish – a sprinkling of dill offsetting a dominant ginger taste – we dispatched it quickly without comment. The same could be said for the light green salad with sliced button mushrooms and vinaigrette, with passed quickly from plate to mouth without particular notice.
The beetroot paté open sandwich was the evening's best. Served with wedges of roasted pumpkin and potato (not enough, mind), the chunky paté was spread on toasted thick white bread and topped with lettuce leaves and sliced tomato. While the veggies were garden-crisp and the paté provided an inventive way of using yummy beetroot, this dish seemed more of a starter than a main. It needed more bulk and more kick to really anchor the meal. Instead it served as a mere pivot before the frosty pomelo ice cream – also imported from the US – a light and sweet ending to a set that had no obvious centrepiece.
More disappointing was the ratatouille served on dull brown rice. Again, plenty of fresh vegetables – celery, green pepper, eggplant, carrot and baby corn in a tomato sauce – but the whole was less than the sum of its parts. We advise heavy use of the accompanying basil to help bring more life to this dish. We were left wanting more, but not more of this.
It's early days for this newbie, and it seems Veggie SF also has its sights in the lunch crowd, placed handily as it is in Stanley Street's modern Stanley 11 commercial building. Its website promises burgers and pastas, which could add needed bulk to its menu, and it is also pitching itself for parties – but keep in mind they must be alcohol-free. We'll happily wax lyrical about the setting and friendly service, but we're going to give the menu some time to finds its feet before we return.
10/F, 11 Stanley St, Central, 3902 3902. Mon-Sat noon-9pm.
Four course set menu x2 $336
10 per cent service charge $33.60