February 21-27, 2007

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First Bite

Cafe Gratitude

By Alastair Bland

I am grateful. Well, not always, but at Cafe Gratitude that's about the only way to get fed. With three established locations in S.F. and Berkeley, this gimmicky restaurant is the Bay Area's dining mecca for vegans and raw foodists, and on Feb. 12 opened its fourth location in San Rafael. But more than gratitude, I would recommend patience for those who sit down to eat here. The food is worth it.

Scanning the brief wine list on the day of the grand opening, I saw under the list of reds a 2004 Barbera ($6.25 per glass) from Argentina. I read that it was vegan. That's how I prefer my wine--without butter, cheese, lard or gristle--so I went with it. It arrived a quarter of an hour later with a young waitress who smiled and shined like an angel.

Hmm. Now, how do I say this? "I Was Satisfied." Or maybe, "I ordered the 'I Am Satisfied.'" Anyhow, I Am Satisfied ($7), a salad, is the appetizer I requested. My brother Andrew ordered I Am Insightful ($8), four spinach-wrapped samosas stuffed with veggies and nuts. We drank the wine together, and from the walls, peace-mongering propaganda spoke at us in big lettering. Slogans like "I Am Alive" could not be argued with.

At last our starters arrived, but I Am Satisfied was missing its signature ingredient: macadamia nut Parmesan. We ate quickly and ordered entrees ($12 each). I chose to be Fabulous, Cafe Gratitude's bid at lasagna. Andrew decided he would pose as Abundant.

To kill time, we shared a couple of smoothies ($7 for 16 ounces): I Am Luscious, a creamy potion of hazelnut milk, cacao, figs and dates; and I Am Delicious, a blend of hemp milk, almond butter, dates, maca and vanilla. We sipped slowly while outside the day matured. Rain showers and cold weather fronts came and went, and it seemed that spring would arrive before our food. In the open kitchen, I saw the staff looking buoyant and happy together. Amidst shelves of organic bananas, coconut oil and nut butters, they hugged each other and laughed, all sharing the gaiety of this wonderful thing called life.

"I Am Starving," my brother announced 10 minutes later, but before he perished, a glowing female apparition arrived with our platters. Abundant was a fantastic variety spread of curry soup, live hummus, hempseed pesto, flaxseed crackers, almond toast and seaweed salad. My pesto-marinara "lasagna" was composed of zucchini slices in place of the pasta and sumptuous cashew cream as ricotta.

Andrew and I were too full to try the desserts like vegan cheesecake, tiramisu, cobbler and ice cream sundae (all $7), but I have little doubt that each option was wonderful. Really, there is no complaining about the food at Cafe Gratitude. Every bite is jam-packed with flavor and thriving nations of microscopic organisms, a major selling point for raw cuisine. Eaten for what it is (not for pizza, burgers or lasagna), Cafe Gratitude's clean, light and refreshing food gets a thumbs up, though on its first day in business, the service could have used some heavy-duty grease. I Am Not Worried that this will soon change.

2200 Fourth St., San Rafael. Open daily, 10am to 10pm. 415.824.4652.

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Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.