Millennium Restaurant Review

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Millennium Restaurant
580 Geary Street  San Francisco

$150 for two, with drinks.

Restaurant Type : Fine Dining | Casual
Diamonds : ♦♦♦♦♦

The first voice we hear as we enter the restaurant, is not the welcome of our hostess, but the shrill exhortation of a fellow tourist—

“C’mon Honey. This is where the celebrities eat! We’re like, eating the same food as Jennifer Anniston!

It’s not the most auspicious beginning, and our server flushes, even as the corners of her mouth turn up in a smile.

We’re at the podium of Millennium, and the room in front of us has such effortless LA chic that it looks and feels like a place that celebrities might hang out—at least those with good taste and an appetite.

It’s pretty without being fussy. In the main seating area there is a combination of simple clean-lined furnishings with a high ceiling—where a more private area just around a bend features booths and a cozier atmosphere. We’re delighted to see that for all of the contemporary touches, a thoughtful decorator has included large velvet drapes and enough upholstery that conversation is possible. The room has a buzz, but not the raucous echo so common to contemporary motifs.

All through the usual rigamorole—the removal of jackets—the walk to the dark wooden table—taking our plush but not too soft seats—we feel the buzz as a sense of hush anticipation. The Millennium might be the vegan restaurant of our generation. Open since 1994 it was a pioneer in taking vegetarian food upscale. In these days of Soyatoo and Tofurky, its difficult to remember how it was for those of us who were vegan in the nineties, when we still made our own soymilk and ordered exotic ingredients like guar-gum by mail. The Millennium represented a paradigm shift, it was neither the hippy-vegetarian restaurant we’d seen before, or macrobiotic in a faddish way. Its innovation was to apply real food science, and the careful blending of simple, but often contrasting flavours to western-style vegetarian cuisine.

A whole generation of vegans were inspired to follow in their footsteps. Including myself—their cookbook was the first book I ordered online, and the first vegetarian cookbook I was bothered to prepare something from.

Alas, it’s a busy night, and we are seated next to our travelling brethren. ‘Honey’ is eating a steamed parcel of some sort, and our waitress drops us off rather abruptly as she looks over alarmed.

“How is everything? I just wanted to mention, that well—you don’t eat the paper, alright?

We chuckle, and open our menus.

As soon as we’ve placed our order, both a bread plate and an amuse-gueule arrive. It’s nice, though I suppose it feels a little strange to be confronted by two courses at once. Both are excellent. The bread is hearty, but not toothily whole-wheat; accompanied by a richly olive flavoured cannellini bean spread. The amuse-gueule is a dish of sprightly pickled lotus root, delicately garnished. Together the two seem a little at odds, but as we tuck into each we’re struck by the underlying similarity, an earthiness that perfectly whets our appetite.

We’ve ordered a prix fixe, seasonally oriented menu, and the next course to arrive are salad plates. Mine is a rather straightforward mix of spring greens made interesting by smoky pecans—having come south from Vancouver, I’m delighted to taste such fresh rawness, though really it’s nothing to write home about.

My partner’s—asparagus grilled and tossed with mixed vegetables is more interesting. It’s all tied together with a romesco—picture pesto, but with almonds and no pine-nuts, and garlic rather than basil—and is delicious. At the same time, in our opinion it suffers somewhat from kitchen sink syndrome—we’re not sure about the included green olive, which is a little jarring; or about the ‘chips’ of slivered garlic which are suspiciously crunchy and overly pungent—why haven’t they been taken out? But, we suppose this is a matter of opinion, and agree that perhaps our complaint is like asking for the crust to be cut off of one’s cucumber sandwhiches—a nit-picking preference that goes against the ontology of the whole and natural foods movement.

We polish of our generously sized American portions, and eagerly await the main course, having forgotten entirely about our entrées, a soup course which arrives at the table all steaming and eager. It’s quite good as well, very American Harvest, sweet and squashy, and built on top of a competent roux. Its smooth and effortless—but knowing there is still a main and dessert to come, we only taste politely before putting down our silverware. We have been teased long enough.

The main course, when it arrives, is beautifully plated. Mine a is a pastry purse filled with a mushroom duxelles and a paragraphs long list of ingredients. It boils down to a rich savoury flavour infused with the subtle grace of truffles and sage. Like a Quebecois tourtiere it tastes equal parts heaven and home. Rather than gravy or mash, it is surrounded by a delicately flavoured, blood-orange infused sauce that contrasts and adds just the right amount of moistness to the plate. It’s slow eating, and I savour it in careful bites.

My dining companion has meanwhile deftly unparceled her parchment paper steamed tamale of grains, cashew cheese, and chile. It disappears before I can snare a bite, but the look of satisfaction on her face speaks volumes. In a true mark of excellent service, the waiter does not immediately rush away her plate, but waits until I’m done before checking in on the meal, and offering to bring dessert.

 

Really, we are sated. But we are also curious, and so we pause for a digestif.

Nearly all of the house cocktails are heavily sweetened, but I try something called “Root Down” with whiskey and bitters, and decide the bartender is competent.

The couple beside us is finishing their meal at last. Honey is grousing over the bill, while his wife roots through her purse. When he finally opens his wallet, she reapplies her lipstick, and touches up her make up. From her rather small, though hugely sequined, purse; she pulls out an enormous camera with a Mary Poppins nonchalance.  We’re suddenly charmed as we agree to take their picture and they give each other a sloppy awkward kiss.

She tells us to try the cheesecake, and so I do.

The cake itself is fantastic, lemony and with a crème anglaise any Anglophile would adore it fills me up to contentedly stuffed—though the ice cream accompanying it has unfortunately succumbed to trend and been infused with a saccharine and overwhelming dose of lavendar (it actually makes me gag).

Thankfully, my smug and clever friend deigns to share her plate of truffles and other sweeties, banishing the taste from my mouth. Stuffed to the gills and contentedly waddling, I excuse myself to freshen up before returning to the bustling city outside.

On my way back from the restroom, I make direct eye contact with a celebrity—Jason Schwartzman is in a booth with what appears to be his entourage. I play it cool—but as I duck back into my seat, I whisper, “Jason Schwartzman is here.

“Well, now that’s better than Jennifer Anniston innit’? I suppose the Millennium is on the up.”

There is a line from a song from a show I love to hate, Portlandia—The dream of the nineties is alive in Portland. Years on, the Millenium well into its new turning, the dream behind the restaurant still lives on. Though perhaps the restaurant has turned into something of an institution, it’s earnest staff and even more earnest menu are irrepressibly likable and infectious.

Five diamonds of six—with hearty recommendations.

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§ One Response to Millennium Restaurant Review

  • Fred says:

    I have never been to San Francisco but I am planning to visit there with my family to attend a wedding ceremony of my friend’s daughter. It will be the right opportunity to explore the city and dine at the famous Millennium Restaurant.
    Thanks! Visit my site – Uidaiaadhaarcard.com

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