Step up your meatless game
Garden to Grill
Sacramento, CA 95816
Good for: fresh vegan and gluten-free meals
Notable dishes: sweet potato-avocado panini, California risotto burger, creamies
I am not vegan, nor am I gluten-free, but I do try to eat as much produce as possible. Even those who are carnivores need fresh, flavorful food to fuel their tank, and with the rise of such themes like Meatless Monday, many people choose to eat vegan or vegetarian at even a few meals every week.
So a vegan restaurant needs to satisfy not just the meatless crowd, but a broad range of customers. With that in mind, we sampled a variety of the menu items on offer, with mixed results.
First, Sugar Plum Cafe originally opened in this location, then it became just Plum Cafe; Garden to Grill began the building’s newest chapter this spring. Baked items originally produced in-house are now supplied by local Sun Flour Baking Co. Everything is vegan, but you’ll need to ask for specifics if you want gluten-free as well.
I’ve never been a big fan of fake meat, and with the restaurant’s motto, “Real food. Real delicious,” it seems odd that so many menu items rely on fake bacon and the like. Meals that celebrate what you have, rather than what you don’t, seem better—see Mother as a fine example.
It follows that the best thing on the menu at Garden to Grill is the sweet potato-avocado panini. Slices of cooked sweet potato layer upon fresh avocado, caramelized onion, tomatoes, and a poppy-seed aioli on springy ciabatta to create a great flavor combo that stands on its own without subbing in a processed ingredient for something “missing.” It’s served with a small organic salad, which is lightly dressed.
The risotto-sunflower seed burger is touted as “award-winning,” and it is good for a vegan burger. The risotto holds things together nicely and the seeds add a welcome textural contrast. The western version comes smothered in a very sweet barbecue sauce that drowned the patty flavor. Chili fries on the side were limp and soggy.
The Fiesta Burrito is a reasonable size and griddled after filling, unlike Mission-style behemoths. The filling is well balanced, with tofu or soy “chick’n” rolled with black beans, brown rice and pico de gallo. It’s not bad, but you’re left to wistfully imagine the flavors that could be had with well-seasoned veggies instead of soy products.
The day we tried it, the vegan pizza came on focaccia, with a choice of toppings in addition to a fresh tomato sauce and soy “cheez.” Seasonal veggies included zucchini, summer squash and bell peppers. While the sauce was underseasoned, the vegetables were almost raw; a longer bake time would add flavor and better texture.
The California Chop salad makes for a large portion, but at $10.25, it should be. The vegetables are quite fresh and plentiful, with the addition of sunflower seeds and tempeh bacon.
Most evenings, the restaurant is only open until 8 p.m.. Friday and Saturday hours go until 10. Brunch is available on Sundays with tofu frittata, pancakes, biscuits and salads.
While the savories are hit or miss, the baked goods are really pretty good. Enormous “Creamies” feature two large cookies sandwiching a vegan “cream” filling. The chocolate-mint version is a satisfying pairing. A creamsicle-flavored cupcake one day had vanilla filling and a light orange-flavored frosting. One benefit of gluten-free baking is that sweets are usually quite tender.
Garden to Grill also carries a wide variety of beers and wines, as well as a rotating selection of kombuchas. The Pink Lady apple is a lightly sweet one to look for.
It’s pretty good, but with so many mainstream places offering more creative vegan options, Garden to Grill needs to step up its game.