Friday night, after what can only be called an arduous drive into San Francisco, I landed gratefully at a small table at Kokkari Estiatorio. A Hellenic restaurant and sister to one of my favorite places on the Peninsula, Evvia, Kokkari is dark and intimate. It has the kind of ambiance that gives you a warm glow, especially after you've spent 40 minutes battling the last five miles to get to valet parking attendants you have never been so grateful to see before.
Kokkari is also extremely veg-friendly, as are most Mediterranean-based restaurants.
As I typically recommend, I called out to our waiter right at the start that I was a vegan. Luckily this was a waiter who not only reacted to my questions, but proactively pointed out various things on the menu and how they could be prepared vegan for me, even if they were not vegan as typically served. This is always so helpful as it eliminates that slightly forlorn feeling of having such limited choices from a menu compared to your non-veg friends.
I've been at this long enough that I often do that kind of proactive probing of the menu myself, but it's always nice to have the waiter do so, it signals the kitchen's willingness to be flexible.
So what did I have?
Well, we started, as every table does, with a plate of marinated olives. I love olives so I loved this little perk. I moved on to a most intriguing-sounding Persimmon Salad, one of the night's specials. It included cucumbers, Belgian endive and nuts with a light lemon-based dressing. It was a visually attractive dish with a good and subtle mix of flavors. The persimmons were a bit harder than I've usually had them, but on the other hand, I wouldn't call myself a regular and experienced persimmon-eater, so take that rating with a grain of salt!
For an entree I combined two small plates, both from the wood-fire roasting oven. Another special was a small plate of various mushrooms, fire-roasted and with just a hint of olive oil and parsley. My dining companion ordered this too, with the haloumi cheese that was part of the dish's default preparation. I, of course, got it sans cheese. Lest you worry that without cheese the dish would be bland, the combination of mushrooms were sufficient on their own to create a dish of varying flavors and textures. These were mouthwatering morsels of earthy, rich delight! Seriously a piece of mushroom heaven.
Mushroom heaven (my new name for the dish, seriously @Kokkari, you're welcome!) was joined by another plate of grilled vegetables, this time mostly artichokes and eggplant on skewers. This also came with a light lemon and olive oil dressing. I can run hot and cold on eggplant, but the roasted skins/edges and soft interiors hit just the right texture combination to win me over.
Finally, despite a lack of any vegan desserts on the menu, they brought me a little bowl of fruit granita (intended as a side accompaniment to another dessert on the menu). It was pomegranate-flavored and provided the kind of tart taste I tend to prefer in desserts. A nice, fresh, clean way to end the meal.
I heartily recommend Kokkari to any vegan looking for a place to go with your carnivorous friends. There is something for everyone, including vegans. And nothing beats a wood oven!