Vegan Hit, Cafe Gratitude, Expands to Orange County
As the Orange County community grows more cognizant and particular about its dietary intake, it also has shifted to some more plant-focused initiatives which is not a bad thing at all. In fact, Duc and I have been moving towards more vegetable-heavy meals ourselves so when word that LA-based Cafe Gratitude, the well-known vegan restaurant with several locations, was coming to our area, we were quite interested. They focus on 100% organic, plant-based foods but the menu has always veered in the direction of typically savory, meat-forward dishes which made us even more curious as to how they could turn those into vegan versions. While this OC location would bring the same philosophy to the area as its LA and SD counterparts, it would also take on an OC flair and introduce a craft beverage program (led by Jason Eisner). Upon invitation, I went out to taste a few of their dishes and see just how this outpost could become a county favorite.
It was without surprise when I walked into Gratitude, the name for the OC location, and felt more like I was in a day spa or oasis than I was stepping into a restaurant. Their outdoor patio gave off a congenial, relaxing vibe with its light-toned woods and intricately patterned tiling. Inside, white brick, indoor plants, warm lighting, and open/exposed light-wood was what carried through the spa feeling. In short, it was very much "Newport Beach" at the restaurant. Led by Chef Dreux Ellis, the menu here builds on the foundation all of the locations have to serve 100% organic, plant-based food but also to use as many local ingredients as possible. We learned that much of the produce brought into the OC location came from Alegria Fresh, an Irvine-based farm that we've heard much about already.
"All the best cocktails in history only have three ingredients." - Jason Eisner, GratitudeWhat has really set this newest opening apart from the others is its dedicated beverage (specifically cocktail) program. Highlighting organic spirits and housemade bitters, infusions, and shrubs, Beverage Director Eisner has put together quite the assortment of unique cocktails. Having worked 17+ years in the business anywhere from biker bars to dance clubs to mixology bars, Eisner showcased quite the know-how about libations and enthusiastically so. He informed us that the sources for their spirits all have inspirational stories and essentially make the alcohols by hand. For example, one of the gins used at Gratitude is made out of lavender by a couple forced to retire due to illness; they bought an old still and ended up making this uncommon gin with it. We did get to try that gin out in a cocktail that evening, and it was certainly a special one.
"Alcohol is a conduit for people to create meaningful relationships."We were able to taste three cocktails, and it was interesting to see how each played out with completely different ingredients. Choices off the drink menu overall included typical cocktails, cold-pressed cocktails, beer cocktails, infused vodka flights, absinthe drips, juices, coffees, and teas. Specialty cocktails were separated by spirit base and came with flavor descriptions. The two pictured above are the Gin & Tonic ($13 - botanical gin, house wild chamomile tonic, and tea smoke) and The Gratitude Capirinha ($11 - Brazilian rum, lime, and citrus oil garnished with a rock candy stick).
What struck us right away was the beauty of the Gin & Tonic cocktail which required some tableside action. In glassware specially made in Denmark for Gratitude, the terrarium-looking cocktail included the likes of wild chamomile from the hills of Malibu as well as the accelerated live smoking which took the spirit into a state that would have taken months on end to barrel-age. It was floral yet smoky, light yet hefty, a great drink; make sure you get your hands on one of these when you're out because there are only 10 available glasses at a time. As for the Capirinha, its rock candy stick took the place of a swizzle, and the citrus additions made it much too easy to drink. What a beautifully dangerous path to take if one started with the capirinha; how could you not have more by the end of the day?
The menu is extensive, to say the least, and the names of dishes are adjectives to indicate the "personality" of the dish (or is it to mimic the type of diner who would choose that food?). Our first bite was not on the current menu but rather was an impromptu coconut ceviche which had convincing-looking chunks. I liked how it captured the ceviche flavor profile without actual raw seafood in it. It even fooled some of the other diners at the table! We tried very many of the dishes from the appetizers section:
- "Delectable" Grilled Baby Brochettes ($9 - roasted vegetable skewers with blackened tempeh and preserved lemon chimichurri)
- Very savory and easy to eat quickly
- "Abundant" Calabrian Antipasto Plate ($18 - Macadamia truffle Brie, fennel pistachio salad, sweet stuffed peppers, spicy pickled vegetables, and gluten-free baguette and crackers)
- One of my favorites from the evening because of how umami-laden the "Brie" was; the combination of sweet, savory, tart, sour, and so forth made this a satisfying variety plate
- "Gifted" Roasted Beet and French Lentil Salad ($14 - wild arugula, radicchio, caper cashew Feta, toasted pecans, and golden balsamic coffee glaze)
- The sheer denseness and nutrients of these slices of beets were amazing; this was an incredibly flavorful item on the menu
- "Inviting" Brussels Sprout Sliders ($9 - blackened tempeh, maple mustard, and cashew ricotta)
- Here, the "buns" are brussels sprouts which give more smokiness (having been roasted) and savoriness to the overall bite
- "Welcoming" Savory Eggplant Polpette ($9 - orange-scented meatballs, marinara, maple mustard, and cashew ricotta)
- These came off a bit strong and salty unfortunately
- "Dazzling" The Sexy Seven ($18 - seven kale varietals, wakame, gomasio, avocado, brazil nut Parmesan, gluten-free croutons, and Cashew Caesar)
- I would toss this into one of my top five kale salads I've had for its sheer variety and its lick-your-lips-and-plate-clean dressing
We had barely scratched the surface on either fronts of food or drink but were getting full. To hit the most savory of options was next. We tasted Gratitude's "Dynamic" Samosa Chaat ($15 - baked garnet yam and cauliflower samosas, Bengali chana masala, coconut mint chutney, and spicy tomato jam) and "Authentic" Chef's Housemade Ravioli ($18 - rotating; ancient grain filled with white truffle and spinach and laid on top of a bed of arugula, walnut pine nuts, dehydrated sundried olives, and alfredo sauce). The chaat was an automatic hit with everyone for its slightly spiced comfort food feeling; the orchestra of flavors that flowed through were bright. It was followed closely by the indulgent ravioli which were represented beautifully through their stuffing and salad bed.
If you're interested in giving a plant-based restaurant a try, find them at 1617 Westcliff Drive, Newport Beach, CA, 92660 from 8AM-10PM daily, They've even implemented a To-Go section of the restaurant for those wishing to pick up only! I know we'll be back ourselves because why not go meatless at least one day of the week? It's the least we could do to help our bodies.
Photography by Minerva Thai. More photos available on Facebook here.