At Gratitude, vegan aims to be another mainstream cuisine

When Mike Perez began adding vegan dishes to his diet last year, he thought he was only doing it so he could support Cafe Gratitude, the plant-based organic restaurant he worked at in San Diego and Los Angeles.

But as time went on, he realized how much better he felt eating the food. And as the team focused on a new location in Newport Beach, which opened Wednesday, he wasn't getting the vegan dishes his body was used to and it rebelled, he said.

"My family's from Uruguay, and that's like the most carnivorous nation on the planet," said Perez, general manager of the business' multiple locations since June. "But I've been eating vegan food pretty regularly since I've worked here. For the last 2 1/2 weeks, I haven't been eating chef Dreux's [executive chef Dreux Ellis] food, and I have felt terrible until just the other day when Dreux was able to start cooking again for the new Orange County location and my body got all those nutrients again."

The Newport Beach location, simply called Gratitude — dropping the cafe part of the title since it is the first location with a full bar — sells dishes that are completely plant-based and organic.

Ellis, who has been a vegan for about 30 years, said the food doesn't contain genetically modified organisms or animal byproducts, but that hasn't scared off people from trying the no-meat dishes.

He said many of the customers aren't vegan. He said vegan food has become just another type of cuisine, thanks in part to mainstream restaurants like Veggie Grill.

Vegans are strict vegetarians who consume no dairy or animal foods or byproducts.

"We did a survey and found that 80% of our guests are actually meat-eaters," Ellis said. "The reason why I think we're so successful in bringing meat eaters into the restaurant is that we're not dogmatic about it. This is a style of cuisine, just like Italian, Mexican and sushi."

He also said the restaurant does not use meat substitutes or soy products, except for tempeh, a fermented soy bean cake.

Gratitude's most popular dish is a macrobiotic bowl of butternut squash, adzuki beans, sea vegetables, sautéed greens, house-made kimchi, black sesame seed gomasio, garlic tahini sauce, teriyaki almonds, sunflower sprouts and brown rice or quinoa.

Other popular foods include oven-roasted Brussels sprouts and a "community" bowl of shredded kale, black beans, garlic tahini sauce and brown rice or quinoa.

Ellis is also working with Erik Cutter of Alegría Fresh, a zero-waste, solar-powered urban farm in Irvine, to provide fresh, local produce for the Newport Beach location.

Cutter said he'll be providing green romaine lettuce, baby fennel, celery, heirloom tomatoes and red cabbage to Gratitude.

"It's a great compliment to be recognized by chef Ellis and his team at Gratitude," Cutter said. "At Alegría Fresh, we work very hard to produce the finest and healthiest produce so our chefs can create their best magic."

Other ingredients, including almond milk, cashew milk, coconut milk, ketchup and mustard, are made in-house by Ellis to certify them as acceptable for the restaurant.

The alcoholic beverages, which are exclusive to the Newport Beach location, are also organic and vegan, though honey is used in some drinks.

Many of the mixers have to be specially ordered.

Beverage director Jason Eisner said he has met with many alcohol distillers to see exactly what goes into their products.

"We don't have the ability to use a lot of the traditional modifiers you'd find in a regular bar," Eisner said. "If we can't find something organic, we won't serve it."

Gratitude also includes a separate take-out location next to the restaurant.

Perez said he hopes the addition of Gratitude To-Go and the new Newport Beach location will inspire more people to eat plant-based and organic food, even if not on a regular basis. He said the company plans to open more locations.

"We want this to be so much more accessible to everybody," he said. "As an industry, I think you're seeing more and more conscious people and more and more organic products at the stores and restaurants. This isn't a trend. It's a movement."

Gratitude is at 1617 Westcliff Drive in Newport Beach. It is open daily from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

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