I think it started with the grilled lotus root. What I remember: it was late, I had just gotten out of the ocean, and I let J. pick the place for dinner. He chose Hale, a new restaurant where an okonomi-yaki outfit had just shuttered. In its place was a Japanese restaurant… Japanese macrobiotic.
Our first course: crisp grilled root, plain and tall, festooned with a broken branch of parsley. I probably pulled my usual trick of quick judgment and started looking for a route to the door–but then a very special dish arrived at our table.
Hale offers a tightly-edited menu of few choices–maybe five entrees and about as many salads and small plates–which, after you subtract obligatory standard fare to appease unadventurous diners, should leave little room for surprises. But not at Hale. Not where, in the middle of the short menu, a roasted half papaya awaits, stuffed with grilled onions and mushrooms in a mayonnaise sauce.
Roasted papaya. Onions and mushrooms. Mayonnaise? J. had tried it before and had to have it again. So it soon arrived (taking the stage to a lukewarm audience after the lotus’ tough first act). Unfazed, luscious, warm, smoky, super-ripe, gorgeous, hysterical, unapologetic, it sang. The carotene meat was soft and just sweet, savory insides were umami and still steaming.
The table continued to fill: a show-stopper teishoku with kuruma-fu (a seitan-like cutlet) and all kinds of little pickles and seaweeds and salads, and dabs of two house-made misos: one pounded from apples, the other, from kale stalks. (I went home and looked up what miso-making involves; it’s a feat.)
My favorite thing that night that didn’t grow on a papaya tree was the sushi sampler of creative non-maguro nigiri, highlighted by a supple strip of well-balanced (mirin?) roasted bell pepper, draped over rice and anointed with a pesto. The meal was sensational, and almost entirely vegetal: after feeding our faces for the better part of an hour, we stood again with none of the heaviness of a multi-course restaurant meal. J., it should be mentioned, washed it down with something called “twig tea.” Not sure at all if that’s what it sounds like; I was on one of those radical no-bark/ no-wood diets at the time.
Went back for the lunch special just last week. Lunch company was Magali, whose Ph.D. research at Stanford focuses on brand authenticity. She studies how well businesses, including restaurants, align their products and services to clearly-focused and well-defined identities; unequivocal shops, she says, might be less likely to fold. Didn’t work for the okonomi-yaki theme grill, but this newer kitchen is still going and was kind enough to let me order papaya off the menu at lunch; maybe next time I’ll ask if they’ll grill me a lotus.