Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant is so Boulder it hurts just a little. It's fancy without calling attention to itself, well-decorated but not quite hip — and 100-percent vegetarian, natch. As a proud son of Boulder County, I don't think this is at all a bad thing — I would never reject the charms of a restaurant solely due to a lack of meat. But based on a flight of Leaf's happy hour plates, this almost decade-old restaurant could use a splash of extra octane in its veggie-powered engine.
Primed to forsake the pleasures of the flesh, I traveled to Leaf with a vegetarian in tow who had been looking to try the place out for ages. The restaurant's happy hour menu looks fantastic and is generously available from 3 to 6 p.m. every day and 8 p.m. to close Sunday through Thursday. With $3.50 drafts, a handful of diverse cocktails and more than a dozen dishes on display, the happy hour list guarantees that you'll emerge back onto Pearl Street with a full stomach. Thanks to the international inspirations of executive chef Rachel Best, every dish is unique and thought-provoking, with a blessed lack of attempts to emulate meats. Sure, you've got your mushroom burger sliders ($3.5) and beet tacos ($3.5), but both boast interesting preparations and toppings like avocado mousse and salsa verde slaw.
But an early sign of distress arrived with my Greyhound Reboot cocktail ($7). The combination of mango-mate (mate as in the Argentinian tea, not the artificial coffee creamer) vodka and grapefruit juice was promising. Strange, though, that the bar didn't realize a bit of sugar was needed to bring out these lurking flavors. The candied grapefruit peel was a nice touch, however. Trying to get a a feel for Leaf's offerings, we ordered what turned out to be too much food for us to handle; despite the cut-rate prices, these are substantial servings. The avocado tartar ($5) is a rare cut of the fruit, piled with marinated mushrooms and cucumber-orange salsa and plated beautifully with leaves of endive to convey the avocado. Yet beyond looks, this dish just doesn't carry much flavor, with so little brine, spice or life beyond the earthy-on-earthy combo. An order of flatbread was grilled to something close to perfection — and made vegan to boot — but zucchini-dill hummus sauce, carrots and radishes? That's a parade of bland ingredients, not a worthy replacement for pizza.
I was most excited for — but ultimately not thrilled by — the crispy harissa tofu ($4). Like the avocado tartar, it was executed well, with the lightly fried tofu smooth and silky inside. But the molasses-like sauce, thickened with prune jam, smacked more of a lackluster mapo tofu than the sexy spices of harissa. Leaf's ambition and execution did come together in the form of curried gnocchi ($5), which packed in all the good stuff I had been missing. Within a bird's nest of sprouts, onions and greens, a cluster of little pasta dumplings packs an explosion of salty, complex flavors, while a dollop of tomato jam brings it back to earth.
As much as I love the scope of Leaf's happy hour menu, I couldn't force myself to be wowed by these dull flavors. I didn't find a must-have dish, like City, O' City's seitan wings, to tie it all together. That said, there's a lot of value in a restaurant where no meat passes through the kitchen, and these plates are priced so well that anyone can visit and play around with what excites them. Whether meat-eater or strict vegan, your mileage may vary.
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SHOW ME HOW
Perfect for: Through extensive meditation and expensive long-distance sessions with my yogi, I have managed to avoid putting dozens of obvious vegetarian jokes in this article. Why should you miss out on the fun? Bring a veg pal or a heathen meat-lover to Leaf and let the sparks fly. Through verbal sparring, you will reach a higher understanding of each other. Or at least that's what Amrit is telling me.
Don't Miss: Leaf is a Three Leaf Concepts joint (Chautauqua Dining Hall, Aji, Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse), which means they take teatime seriously. Leaf offers afternoon tea every Saturday from 3 to 5 p.m. ($22 per person, reservations required) with a selection of traditional pastries and snacks.