"Don't underestimate it," says Michael Nolting, speaking for himself as well as for wife Clare and Greens' chef, Hugh O'Neill. "We now know that the incantation `location, location, location' is the absolute truth." And the trio learned that the hard way. After nine years of purveying healthy foods at Greens' less than robust location on East Colfax, the veteran foodies finally gave up on that neighborhood and moved to their new, very choice location on South Pearl Street, in the old home of the Sushi Den. "We admitted to ourselves that our determination and willingness to do whatever it takes was misguided," Nolting adds. "We had to face the fact that we could not survive that neighborhood."
Their current surroundings seem much better suited to Greens' blend of healthful ingredients and ultra-chic interior. This is a hip scene, as opposed to the hippie scene of the last location: The funky bar has a metallic sheen; coffee and spices were actually mixed into the paint that gave the walls their rough, rustic surface; and there's even a sound, if unexciting, wine list. And although Greens never was a totally vegetarian restaurant, the South Pearl kitchen stretches even further. O'Neill's dishes feature free-range chicken and meats, fresh vegetables and lots of herbs and spices. "I think we got the reputation for being a vegetarian restaurant because of the [unrelated] Greens in San Francisco, which is vegetarian," Nolting observes. "That place opened three months before ours, and we didn't even know about it." Adding to the confusion was Greens Market, which the trio opened in 1987, two years after they started the restaurant, and which still specializes in fresh produce and health foods.
It's that commitment to high-quality ingredients that makes this Greens a hit. Instead of saucing things to death, O'Neill and his staff let the food speak for itself. And given the appealing combination of ingredients--achiote powder with blackened tomatoes and steak, pasta with romas, capers, basil and fresh mozzarella--each dish has a lot to say. There were so many choice offerings clamoring for our attention that it was almost impossible to settle on our order. For example, we couldn't decide between the grilled mushrooms and the grilled eggplant appetizers--so we got them both. The mushrooms ($6) arrived in large chunks of various wild varieties (we identified portabello and shiitake) coated with a subtle vinaigrette studded with big, soft tomato pieces. Garlic toast points offered flavor and a crunchy counterpoint, but the key element was the rosemary, which added a perfumey quality without taking over. Rosemary was also used to good effect in the eggplant appetizer ($5.50), although the herb tasted completely different here. Thick triangles of pliant eggplant were blanketed with slices of melted, smoked mozzarella cheese and then nestled in an herb-infused, smooth tomato sauce.
The soup and salad preparations were equally simple and just as successful. The dinner salad ($2.50) was an austere toss of mixed greens with a touch of balsamic vinaigrette, the soup ($2.50 a cup) a mild tomato-and-fennel concoction that piqued our appetites.
And it was a good thing, because the portions at Greens are sizable. The Jamaican chicken ($10.50) contained a whole breast's worth of shredded, preservative-free, chemical-free, free-range fowl. After tasting this pure meat, we wondered why anyone would settle for anything else. The bird's texture was less stringy, more tender and dense than most chicken, and its flavor was more distinct. The kitchen had improved upon that taste with the gentle addition of ginger, the more forceful use of chile peppers and an unnecessary topping of grilled banana, which we shoved aside. Bananas have a way of stealing the show--and this was one performance we didn't want to miss a minute of. The sides of wild rice and steamed summer vegetables were noteworthy, but it was a large pappadum, a type of Native American cracker the size of a 45 rpm record, that really caught our attention. Baked instead of fried, it reminded us of Bugles, those corny little snacks, and its addictive airiness provided a welcome respite from the meal's spiciness.
The wise use of goat cheese did the same for the polenta ($9), four wedges of a baked version of the cornmeal pudding. The cheese had been spread between each piece, cooling down the thin pool of green chile--interestingly studded with hominy--that gave the dish its kick. Wild mushrooms and a colorful steamed amalgam of broccoli, red peppers and onions cemented the polenta's vegetarian status, but its overcooked exterior detracted from a wonderful collection of textures. Fortunately, the interior of each wedge was still creamy and soft, and we reveled in the kitchen's obvious skill and creative good sense.
Not even that knowledge could prepare us for the tiramisu ($5), however. Pastry chef Emily Ripley's interpretation of this ridiculously overdone dessert (only creme brulee and cheesecake are more common) was sensational: the best thing I've ever found in a martini glass. It helped to dig down to the bottom on the first bite, because the shot of caramel sauce at the base tied together an unusual but brilliant layering of flavors. Directly above the caramel, for instance, was an inspired piece of sponge cake. "I have an ideological belief in ginger cake and the fact that more people should like it," Ripley explains when I later ask her about her superb creation. "I was looking for a flavor change in the dessert, and I know that a lot of people aren't fond of ginger cake. I think they're wrong."
Ripley's right. This is a great way to turn people on to ginger cake--who could complain when it's topped by a rich hazelnut cream that's sort of a cross between a custard and a mousse, then pieces of chocolate cake dipped in espresso and Kahlua, then whipped cream, then crumbled bits of hazelnut pralines and, finally, chocolate shavings? Good God, it was good--and so substantial that the martini glass could hardly hold it all. Ripley got the idea for the container on a trip to Orvieto, Italy, where she ate many lame versions of the classic dessert. "They are mostly things made from stale cake and cream," she says. "I wanted to do something interesting."
It was so interesting that it completely overshadowed our other dessert, a raspberry-and-chocolate-mousse cake ($4.50) that failed to measure up. In fact, I loved the tiramisu so much that I soon returned for another--this one consumed after a hearty lunch. (Only Greens' huge entree portions could convince me to share the dessert.)
We started that meal with the butternut squash soup ($2.50 a cup), a thick puree of squash and green apples touched with ginger. A grilled chicken salad ($7) filled a plate with greens, chilled angel-hair pasta, raw red onions and the chicken itself, beautifully cooked and smothered in fresh mayonnaise touched with poblano chiles. The soft steak tacos with wild rice and black beans ($7.50) were another bargain: three flat, baked taco shells covered with chopped steak, as well as diced, roasted red peppers, tomatoes and a smattering of sliced scallion ends. The steak was juicy, and all the ingredients melded together beautifully.
So far, we've encountered hardly a misstep at the new Greens--which is why I've been surprised to find the place nearly empty each time. This place has a menu, a style, a philosophy and a location that should make other restaurants green with envy.