Although the new all-vegan Gnome Café may call to mind certain mental images, it's not the hippie enterprise you may be expecting: no burning incense, wall tapestries, nor a single note of Grateful Dead music are to be found. Rather, Gnome Café is surprisingly minimalist and sophisticated. If anything, the sleek black-and-white look is straight from the pages of Hip Juice Bar Monthly.
The menu contains no animal products, yet everything is principally named after animal products: fried chicken, BLT, taco salad. It's not hard to imagine your easily befuddled aunt wandering in and somehow missing the fact, at first, that it's a vegan joint.
Take, for example, the Hemp "Sausage" Biscuit ($5.50). Although certainly looking the part, this dense, sweet little number will not fool anyone who's eaten an actual sausage biscuit in the last decade. However, presuming imitation is not necessarily the goal, the sharp bite of the black pepper-laden patty in combination with the mild and doughy biscuit grows on you. The sausage contains visible fennel and notes of nutmeg. Together with the red pepper flake jelly, it's intense, fragrant, and sweet.
Similarly the tofu scramble ($3), a doppelgänger for scrambled eggs in both color and consistency, is far more Punjabi than poultry. It comes mixed with sautéed onions and heavily seasoned with cumin, coriander, and turmeric. When rolled up in a tortilla with added guacamole, mango salsa, and shredded greens, it's much fresher and lighter than your average burrito. Eat it fast, however, as the whole wheat tortilla holding it together soon dissolves into a mushy, unholy mess, and turmeric stains like the dickens.
My vegan dining companion missed the nuance of the Chickpea "Tuna" Salad ($10).
"Sooooo... this is just chickpeas?"
It's apparently garbanzo beans made to taste like tuna salad, which means dressed with a lot of vinegar. Served on a bed of greens with kalamata olives and hearts of palm, you're not going to mistake it for an authentic salade Nicoise, but once again, it's crisp and vibrant and leaves you feeling ready to run a couple miles or strike the crane pose, should the opportunities arise. Still, why not just call it chickpea salad rather than the seeming masquerade?
And that's the crux of the problem at Gnome. I suggest they either strive to be more "I can't believe it's not butter!" in their emulations or just embrace more vegan-obvious naming. Especially in light of dishes like the BLT ($6.50).
No actual bacon makes it way into this sandwich of course. Instead, it's made with portobello mushrooms, lettuce, and tomato. But that's all right. The five or six thin slices of mushroom have been marinated to a lightly salty state and cooked crisply. The untoasted sourdough bread was top-notch and the magical trifecta of lettuce, tomato, and mayo retain super powers even when the mayo lacks eggs and the role of bacon is being played by fungus. I propose a name change to MLT or V(egan)LT if you prefer, but regardless, I'd order it again.
Further down the rabbit hole of faux meats, let's consider the Tempeh Reuben ($9). Is it really a "Reuben," you wonder? The sauerkraut, vegan Swiss cheese, and marble rye scream yes. However, the untoasted slices of bread are quickly sogged out by the sauerkraut and an inexplicable layer of Gherkin pickles. Let's face facts; The tempeh-as-pastrami has a Carolina sweet barbecue sauce flavor that isn't fooling anybody, but there's still potential here. Keep playing with the marinade, lose the pickles, and give that sandwich some time in a well-oiled frying pan. Then sit back as delighted vegans and vegetarians beat a path to your delicatessen, er, vegan restaurant.
Although it looks like a juice bar, Gnome doesn't serve juices nor smoothies. This feels like an oversight, if not a missed opportunity for the cash register. (There'd be a line of yoga pants around the block.) But perhaps the market for faux meat and hemp milk lattes is stronger than I realized. If you like a double espresso with your plant-based fare, they've got you covered.
Whether this sounds like your cup of kombucha tea so far or not, one thing everyone should consider is the Caesar Salad ($7.50) with fried seitan "chicken" ($3), because this is some top-notch culinary witchcraft. Comprised almost entirely of wheat gluten, the toothy seitan is coated in sage-infused breadcrumbs and fried. Crisp, crunchy, and enough like white meat to raise suspicion, it's magically delicious. The salad itself was overdressed and heavy with vinegar, but in terms of vegan dishes tasting like the animal product-based originals they seemingly hope to emulate, this is as good as "the real thing."
Pretty much its antithesis, the Pad Thai Salad ($12) reminded me of Thai food the way Pinnochio makes me think of Italy: Not at all.
Thinly cut zucchini "pasta" is plated on cold brown rice and topped with kale, bell peppers, pea pods, broccoli, carrots, and a sprinkle of almonds. The coconut lime almond dressing sounds like a step in the right direction, but the flavors are too muted to stand out. Sure, fish sauce and shrimp don't play here, but even vegans will be left wondering what happened to the tamarind and the tofu, not to mention the cilantro, chilies, and bean sprouts. The balance of hot, sour, salty, and sweet is what gives Thai food its distinctive flavor. This is a kale, zucchini, and rice salad with some almond dressing. Meh.
Meanwhile, the Veggie Burger ($9.50) may be crumbly, but the flavors are rock solid. Seemingly comprised of a garbanzo bean and mushroom base, there's a light heat to the finish. Don't puzzle about the spices for too long, however, as with each bite, the burger loses its ability to hold it together. Expect a full-throttle, hotheaded breakdown about halfway through, but so long as it explodes onto the plate, your chest, or your lap, it's all right to keep eating it. Just delicately dab the corners of your mouth every so often. The presence of the white cloth napkins demands it.
At Gnome the question comes down to what's in a name? In Maui, where I last lived, there were a ton of vegan, vegetarian, and/or raw places, and they just called the food whatever veggie thing it was. For example, "Indo collard crunch wrap" — marinated tempeh, crunchy veggies, and Indonesian peanut sauce in a collard green salad. There was no need to evoke meat. At most, something might be called a taco or a burrito, but it was a "wildflower taco" or a "sprouted wheat live nut burrito." Certainly the choice to use classic names like a Reuben could be Gnome's owners hope of appealing to non-vegans, but I don't think it's necessary.
That aside, a restaurant with a granola name — but void of actual granola, garden statues, toadstools, or dandelion wine — that looks like an Apple store married an Italian cafe and had a baby, and serves vegan fare with names lightly masquerading as carnivorous options? Sure. Why not? And get me a Fried "Chicken" Caesar Salad — easy on the dressing — while you're at it.