It’s a New Era for Vegans at Millennium Restaurant in Rockridge
Eric Tucker leaves San Francisco behind and with Alison Bagby brings high-concept vegan creations to Millenium Restaurant, the Rockridge spot that didn’t work for meat-centric Box & Bells.
Millennium’s sweet potato pupusas and Amarosa potato tikka cakes.
Photo by Lori Eanes
Affluent East Bay vegetarians and vegans are turning cartwheels over the arrival of Millennium Restaurant, a place that caters to their diets with high concept, panache, and the kind of culinary firepower that could translate into staying power.
“If I were a vegetarian, I’d be very happy this place is here,” Robin said after our second dinner at the new Millennium, which occupies the Rockridge location that formerly housed James Syhabout’s Box & Bells.
Eric Tucker was the mastermind chef behind Millennium when it opened across the bay in 1994, and he elevated meatless, dairy-free dining to heights far loftier than tofu standing in for chicken and seitan masquerading as beef. Last January, principal owners Larry and Ann Wheat announced they were retiring. New owners of the Hotel California had plans that didn’t include Millennium. A few months later, Tucker revealed that he and general manager Alison Bagby, as co-owners, would open a new Millennium in Rockridge. I’d eaten only once in the San Francisco spot, and what I remember most was that the food struck me as vegan vertical (my pixelated memory conjures up fanciful towers with veggie scaffolding, flying buttresses, and observation decks), and that a fellow sitting across from me talked all evening about his raw diet (including uncooked beef and pork) and his scheme for sleeping on San Francisco rooftops without getting caught.
Our meals at the new Millennium—it feels funny to keep saying that in 2015— were marked by fewer architectural pretensions and none of the swashbuckling braggadocio. But they weren’t short on ingredients in elaborate constructions. I could take up the remaining 800 words of this review just listing the squashes, mushrooms, chiles, garlics, cabbages, peppers, beans, greens, avocados, and versions of aioli and pesto, jams and salsas, cheeses and creams, raita and relish, as well as Asian constituents—shiso, miso, kimchi, gochujang, lemongrass, sambal—and elements associated with Mexican cooking, such as tomatillo, huitlachoche, jicama, and mezcal that go into Millennium’s Pan-cultural cuisine. Indeed, parts of the menu are so dense and multiethnic that when our servers asked, “Do you have any questions about the menu?” we were tempted to ask, “Yes, what will this look like? What will it taste like?”
If there’s one problem with some of the kitchen’s preparations, it’s that occasionally you might not be able to answer those questions yourself, even with the dish in front of you and a few forkfuls in your mouth.
That was not true of the three starters we shared over two visits. The sesame-and-arborio-crusted king trumpet mushrooms, thinly cut with a thin, toasty crust, tasted like you might expect. Dipping the crisp-outside, spongy-inside pieces into the accompanying gochujang sauce gave them an anticipated Korean kick. Seared pole beans had just the right scorch and crispness, plus a vivid snarl of zings from the garlic and the Meyer lemon-sweet-and-spicy-pepper sofrito. And although Robin grew weary of the cashew cheese and cream crucial to many vegan recipes, the soft garlic-herb version inside the golden exterior of the chickpea panisse frites was divine, and the presentation, with shaved fennel salad, was Instagram worthy. The August salad, only slightly different from what I’d read about the June and July variations, was a lovely heap of little gems, radicchio, avocado, and pickled Green Zebra tomatoes. The touted toasted breadcrumbs were virtually undetectable, and the cashew-dill ranch dressing was less than “creamy,” but the dish was fresh and fully comprehensible.
The mains, on the other hand, required more parsing. We tried only three, each containing as many punctuation-challenging elements as pigments on a Jackson Pollack canvas. The black garlic-miso-glazed tempeh was served with shiso fried rice, kimchee, greens, and more. Everything, including a cucumber salad, was huddled to one side, making way for a giant, brown brushstroke of sauce across two-thirds of the giant, white plate. The flavors were sharp, intriguing, and ultimately a bit confusing. In the red lentil lemongrass coconut curry, a veritable garden of various vegetables competed for attention with the lukewarm but palate-pleasing sauce; a plump jasmine rice cake was planted in the middle. Our favorite was the fresh corn and seared amaranth tamale. The beautifully chaotic landscape on the plate yielded a flabbergasting tumble of flavors: pumpkin seed-roasted tomatillo sauce, seared squash, black beans, huitlachoche, jicama, avocado-mezcal salsa, popped amaranth. All three of the above entrées seem to be mainstays of the menu, but given Tucker’s micro focus on markets and seasonality, chances are the specifics will rarely repeat themselves.
The one dessert we tried, grilled peach cheesecake, was another lesson in the art of plating—tucked to one corner of a square white plate, with a ring of salted caramel sauce leading to it, stood a three-layered timbale: a pistachio-basil-orange bottom crust, cashew vanilla cream, and peach compote. Wafer-thin peach slices fanned out on top, propped against a maple tuile.
I’m getting used to desserts costing $10 or more, but at Millennium, I’d rather spend $12 for a second cocktail. “Chief cocktail editor” Mateo Hoke matches Tucker’s ingredient-driven aesthetic with his “Fresh from the Farm” concoctions, using muskmelon, lovage, ginger, and even black garlic, and his “Imaginative Classics.” Of the latter, I was knocked out by the subtle use of black pepper and vanilla-infused rye in the Millennium Manhattan and the balanced addition of cynar and burnt orange oil to the bourbon and carpano antica in the Red Emma. An interesting international wine list includes more than a dozen selections by the glass.
The heavy wood furnishings and steel beams still give the interior a stubborn, even beefy look, but Tucker and Bagby have added some white paint and brighter lighting to soften the dark, bulky ambience that made the meat-centric Box & Bells feel masculine and clubby. And the back patio is one of the most inviting spaces in Rockridge. We might not feel an irresistible tug to Tucker’s ambitious main dishes, but I can see dropping by often for drinks and small plates, because I am very happy that bourbon and rye are considered vegan.
Vegetarian, vegan. 5912 College Ave., Oakland, 510-735-9459. Starters and salads, $6-$12.95, main dishes $17.95–$23.95, desserts $6.50-$11, chef’s five-course tasting menu $67 with optional wine pairing $28. 5:30 p.m.–9:30 p.m. Sun.–Thu., 5:30 p.m.–10:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat. CCG%X$$-$$$www.MillenniumRestaurant.com