Review: Leaf's menu is a passage to adventure -- but the road can get bumpy

Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant 2010 16th Street, Boulder 303-442-1485

When it's time for Rachel Best, executive chef of Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant in Boulder, to update the menu, she doesn't turn to cookbooks or cooking shows. Nor does she rely on what she learned in culinary school, given the traditional emphasis on animal proteins and butter. Instead, this longtime vegetarian goes for a hike. It's there, she says, that "flavor concepts" come to her, memories of foods she's had while backpacking in Nepal, studying in Spain or volunteering in Central and South America.

See also: Behind the Scenes at Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant

Take the collard-green enchiladas on Leaf's current menu, for example. The entree caught my eye because I love Mexican food, both the authentic variety and, due to an early upbringing in Texas and Oklahoma, the cheese-slathered Tex-Mex kind. But the iteration at this eight-year-old restaurant was unique, lacking ground beef (of course), as well as ancho chiles and corn tortillas. Instead, Best fashioned a filling of millet, red bell peppers, poblanos, onions and black beans, then stuffed it inside a blanched collard green leaf. In place of enchilada sauce, she smeared avocado mousse on the plate, dabbed on a line of carrot-ginger purée, then scattered crisp hominy on the side.

The result wasn't quite Mexican, nor was it Asian. What it was -- besides delicious -- was African. "Those are the things I ate in my village," she explains, referring to her stint in Cameroon as a member of the Peace Corps. "I had an avocado tree in my yard, carrots were one of the products that we grew, we put ginger into a lot of stuff, and millet and hominy were all staples." Rather than using the ingredients to re-create any particular dish, she took creative license to "turn them into something guests would like," she says.

The pearl couscous salad was equally adventurous, like a college kid with a backpack and a train pass. I don't know what trip Best was recalling when she designed this entree-worthy salad, with figs, carrots, pistachios and feta tossed in a big bowl of greens, but wherever it was, I'd like to go there. My hunch is North Africa, given the harissa -- an agave-sweetened take on the popular North African spice blend -- on the accompanying deep-fried tofu. Couscous came in the form of clusters, which might not sound appealing if you're thinking of the instant stuff sitting in your pantry. But these large pearls, spiked with spices such as cinnamon, allspice and cloves and plumped in water and orange juice until they clumped together like chewy granola, more than held their own in a spot usually filled by grilled chicken or salmon. What didn't work was the flatbread that came along with the salad: thin, pale triangles that had all the appeal of the squashed Wonder bread I used to throw to ducks.

And this is the conundrum of Leaf: Just when you think the restaurant is moving two steps forward -- creating vegetarian, vegan, raw and gluten-free dishes that shine well outside the shadow of their meat-, dairy- and wheat-centric counterparts -- the kitchen's inattentive execution moves Leaf one step back.

Keep reading for the rest of the review on Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant. For example, mushroom-avocado tartare, a raw dish, cried out for acid and salt to cut the earthiness; a sprinkling of cucumber-orange pico de gallo should have provided that pop, but ours tasted mostly like raw onion. Seitan shawarma, described by the server as having all the richness of lamb, reminded me of thin lasagna noodles cooked just shy of al dente, with so many dry spices -- some fifteen in all, including cayenne, paprika and coriander -- that I felt as if I'd shaken the powders straight onto my tongue. And an appetizer of beet pierogi that should have been enticing thanks to the orange in the filling came out one-dimensional: all beet and no citrus.

Even dishes that were largely successful lost some luster through flawed execution. The raw banana-pudding parfait, which must have been made with underripe bananas, since the only fruit flavor came from the slices on top, would have been fantastic as a vanilla pudding, especially with its striation of cocoa nibs, pecans and dates. An appetizer of seared cauliflower showed off Best's creativity, with ingredients rarely seen together -- cauliflower, feta and housemade apricot-Fresno jam -- frolicking on one plate. But after it was seared, the thick slice of cauliflower could have used more time in the oven to soften the core.

Unlike Aji, Leaf's high-energy sister restaurant that can be accessed (along with the restrooms) via a doorway off the dining room, Leaf projects an image of calm, with serene green walls, a pressed-tin ceiling, live plants and plenty of natural light. But Leaf's service was at odds with the tranquil look of the place. Servers walked by our table for ten minutes before finally stopping to greet us, offered to bring bread but then forgot until it was time for the main course, and grew visibly frustrated at my vegan friend's questions about the non-dairy options for the chai. I'm glad my friend persevered, because the smooth, not-too-sweet chai is made according to the recipe at the Dushanbe Teahouse, which is also operated by the Louisville-based Three Leaf Concepts. (In season, Leaf and the group's other restaurants get eggs and organic produce from Three Leaf Farm in Lafayette.)

When the kitchen is paying close attention, however, good things happen. Though milder than any jerk chicken I've had, the Jamaican jerk tempeh had both a pleasant texture and flavor. Cooked until it had the look and feel of brown lentils, the tempeh was layered in a mold over chewy grains of forbidden black rice; the mound crumbled easily, a sandcastle falling into the tide of flavorful sauces -- coconut-plantain and a balsamic reduction -- that lapped at the edge of the plate. And a thin, nearly cracker-crisp pizza pleased even the pepperoni lovers in our group, with smoked apples standing in for bacon alongside roasted fennel, mushrooms and raw arugula on top of a vegan Alfredo sauce.

"I get most of my satisfaction from pleasing meat-eaters," says Best, adding that "a lot of people think of vegetarian food as boring tofu." Given the restaurant's globe-trotting menu, "boring" is hardly a word that anyone -- whether meat-eater or plant-lover -- would use to describe Leaf.

If only the adventure didn't include so many bumps along the way.

Select menu items at Leaf: Beet pierogi $8 Mushroom-avocado tartar $7 Seared cauliflower $7 Couscous salad $12 Seitan shawarma $17 Jamaican jerk tempeh $16 Flatbread pizza $12 Collard-green enchiladas $15 Raw banana-pudding parfait $6

Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant is open from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Contact the restaurant at leafvegetarianrestaurant.com.

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