Am I becoming a vegetarian?
Probably not, because I love carnitas, fried chicken and Italian beef sandwiches too much. But there is no question I am eating meat much less lately, after discovering more and more of Wine Country’s new plant-based restaurants that are doing spectacular things with everything from pizza to high-end cuisine.
My latest find is Crisp Kitchen & Juice, which opened this past fall in St. Helena. A combination fast-casual bistro, a grab-and-go market and lifestyle boutique, Crisp also boasts a bakery that makes a variety of seeded and sprouted breads, plus delectable pastries and desserts.
There are vegan dishes, but also a handful of meat and seafood options, too, should you wish to accent all those beautiful vegetables and grains.
Let’s start with the gluten-free breads. Those crusty provisions come in styles like a seeded sourdough sorghum boule studded with sunflower, flax and pumpkin seeds ($11); or a Superhero loaf brimming with hazelnuts, almonds, walnuts, hemp, oats, honey and spices, plus flax, pepita, sunflower, sesame and chia seeds ($12). With dense but not heavy crumb, they’re excellent examples of alternative flour baking.
Slices are the base for breakfast toasts piled in goodness like line-caught sustainable salmon cured in beet and citrus juices, with charred scallion wands, cashew schmear, pickled red onions, capers, lemon and dill on wheat-free Nordic rye ($11.50).
Or they round out lunch-early dinner meals like the mezze board that, as with many of the dishes here, would be a star even in a fancy restaurant. It’s arranged with hummus (choose thick, tart, roasted beet or roasted sweet heirloom carrot or creamy Rancho Gordo Marcella bean), “faux gras” (a delightful spread of lentils, mushrooms, onion, nuts, garlic and spices), pickled seasonal vegetables, maple walnut crunch, spiced turmeric crackers and Superhero bread ($14.95).
The inspiration for these dishes, explained Crisp owner Annette Shafer, came from a trip she took seven years ago to Denmark. She found several cafés that specialized in her longtime favorite foods like macro bowls and rødgrød, a Danish porridge of red summer berries and groat (whole cooked grains).
“I met a couple of gals there who were making amazing gluten-free bread,” she said. “Once I got home, we connected again over Instagram, and then I joined their Facebook group, learning how to make the bread, ferments and starters.”
It was the nudge Shafer needed. She had been thinking about creating a fresh and healthy culinary business since moving from Sacramento to Napa Valley in 1994. She was summoned here to open the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena and found a dining scene offering heavier foods than she preferred.
“Things were really different here then,” she said. “I’ve always erred on the side of more health-forward, plant-forward food, and there was just really nothing. I kept thinking, we have all this fresh produce, maybe someone will open something. No one ever really did.”
In 2014, she opened a pop-up in what is now the Tre Posti event space in St. Helena, sharing kitchen space with the Clif Family Bruschetteria food truck team.
“I put a little sandwich board out front, and people would come to the side door to pick up fresh juices and bowls,” she said. “It only lasted eight months before the building sold, but it was great because I got to try out items and see what worked.”
Next, she did farmers markets and catering for the next few years (she still sells her Crisp items at the Napa Farmers Market, 1100 West St., Napa).
Walking into the small storefront in Sunshine Foods Market center on Main Street in St. Helena, visitors will see a cafe that feels like a movie set vignette.
Everything is sleek and lovely, from rattan chairs and metal stools to woven basket lamps and fresh flowers in vases all over. My favorite spot is the lounge nook to the side, where I feel like I could cuddle up with a book and linger for hours over a Soul masala chai latte made with Oatly oat milk and dressed with Marshall’s Farm honey plus a pinch of sea salt ($6).
You might look at the Pretty in Pink Pitaya smoothie bowl and feel slightly annoyed at its perfection. It really is lovely, and so good for you, with its fuchsia base of blended pitaya cactus fruit, banana, raspberries, apple, Epic protein (certified organic, vegan and gluten-free), maca (Peruvian ginseng), lucuma (South America fruit powder) and schisandra (Chinese magnolia berry), all topped with sliced banana, seasonal fruit (kiwi, if you time it right). The capper: tahini granola, which, if you’d like to know, is made with buckwheat, oats, pepita, hemp, nuts, coconut, egg white, maple, tahini and spices.
Why annoyed? Because not only is every part of the 16-ounce treat ($13.75) made from scratch in-house, but because it’s so delicious you can’t go all snarky “Portlandia” about it.
Shafer didn’t seem insulted when I mentioned my observation.
“I’m a health coach, nutritionist, CIA graduate,” she said. “I have to think, how can people be nourished but not be put off that it’s quote-unquote healthy, so it’s going to taste horrible? It’s plant-forward, but it’s seasonal, vibrant flavors, so we show them it can be delicious first, and oh, by the way, it’s healthy.”
I admit, I still do enjoy the meat dishes very much, especially because they keep to the clean-eating concept. A Cobb salad is all it should be — just so much better than most Cobb salads end up being. No soggy, salty stuff swimming in high-calorie dressing here, but a pretty arrangement of crisp greens, shaved carrot, avocado, organic Taramasso Ranch jammy-yolk egg, slabs of Mary’s pasture-raised chicken and Humboldt Fog goat cheese, chives, baked coconut “bacon” flakes and a light yogurt ranch dressing on the side ($16.95).
Another bowl brings a deconstructed portrait of grass-fed and finished Niman Ranch beef sliced alongside hearty spoonfuls of long grain rice, steamed and lightly charred broccoli, charred scallion chunks, roasted poached beet, sweet roasted heirloom baby carrots, pickled red onions and tart carrot-top chimichurri ($18.95).
“We use a lot of acid and herbs to intensify flavor, and just a drizzle of olive oil,” Shafer said. “Because why are we trying to make food taste good with all that fat and salt and sauces instead of letting the best products do the work? We get great beef, then do as little as possible to it so you taste the real flavor of the meat.”
And if you crave more, add more. You can dress bowls with crisp kimchi ($1), extra egg ($2), Hodo organic tofu ($3) and many other items.
On my next visit, I likely will add Llano Seco sustainably raised pork belly ($7) to my seasonal ramen bowl, because, well, I love mouthwatering pork belly. But the soup was excellent in its original vegetarian model, too, stocked with gluten-free noodles, bok choy, braised greens, asparagus, snap peas, shiitake and enoki mushrooms, Hodo tofu, marinated jammy egg, green onion, fresh herbs, ginger, togarashi, toasted sesame oil and a choice of plant-based or bone broth ($16.75).
For a true test of Crisp’s charms, I pulled a sly one. A dear friend loves pastries and avoids nearly all vegetables. So I brought her a box of gluten-free chocolate glaze doughnuts ($2.75), cinnamon buns ($4.95) and turmeric-blueberry-apple-carrot-golden raisin muffins ($3.50).
Picture ingredients like brown rice, tapioca, sorghum, flax, oat milk, honey, goat butter, a touch of organic cane sugar and spices. My friend loved every bite, and was never — until she reads this — the wiser.
There’s still a lot of work to be done before fast-casual spots like McDonald’s lose their market share, we all know. But Shafer hopes enough people realize that savoring a quick, healthy meal really can be as easy and as satisfying as stuffing down a Big Mac.
“I really do believe the brain’s chemistry works against us, because it does want the salt and fat in that fast-food stuff,” she said. “Your brain says, ‘go there,’ because it’s the quickest way you can get it into your body. Yes, your brain does need carbohydrates, but why don’t you have vegetables that have the good kind of carbs? It takes a little more thought, but it can be done and have you feeling so much better.”
Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in The Press Democrat’s Sonoma Life. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.