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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Small-Town Feel at Cafe for Vegans

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Real Food Daily reminds me of a cafe in a small town: Customers know the waitresses’ names and vice versa. The man sitting next to us at the counter strikes up a conversation--it’s his second meal of the day there.

The main difference between a small-town cafe and Real Food Daily is that you can’t get biscuits and gravy here. Or coffee. Or apple pie. Nobody will chicken-fry you a steak. And nobody would dream of smoking. At Real Food Daily, you’re more apt to have polenta with a sauce called “nomato,” kukicha tea, sugar-free apple crisp.

This small, pretty 3-month-old restaurant in Santa Monica serves food for vegans, vegetarians who eat no animal products--no meat, no dairy.

The walls are a pale yellow, the wooden tables are stained deep green. Behind the counter, white restaurant china is stacked in blond wood shelves over the steam table. The young staff beams with health and buoyant spirits.

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“What’s this?” I hold up a soft, dark stick-like thing on my fork.

“Burdock root,” says the waitress. “It’s very good for you. It increases your circulation. Go on now. Eat it.”

I eat it. Burdock root is a little medicinal, but the texture is pleasurably smooth.

During another visit, our waitress overheard us muttering over a dish. “Is there a problem?” she asked with concern. In answer, one friend tapped the millet croquette with a spoon--you could hear how crisp and solid it was. Still, the food here is fresh, interesting, varied and more often than not, delicious. One side of the menu describes starters, small meals and salads, which remain constant; the other lists seasonal specials that change daily.

Don’t be fooled by the lentil walnut pate; it looks downright liverish, but tastes nutty, fresh, virtuously bland. No sizzling skillet of seitan comes with the seitan fajitas; rather, the well-seasoned soy product comes already wrapped in a whole-wheat tortilla--a burrito by any other name. Vegetable sushi is a delightful cut roll with brown rice, burdock root, sprouts, carrot, radish.

The Caesar salad, eggless, with dulse (a marine algae) instead of anchovy and a soy Parmesan is garlicky and good, if faintly sweet. The pressed salad, a distant relative to kimchee , is made with shredded cabbage and vegetables cured overnight with vinegar and salt.

My favorite, however, is the quinoa salad, the wonderful nubbly Peruvian grain with fresh peas, corn and other vegetables, dressed with the restaurant’s lemon-tahini dressing.

A special one night was tempeh Parmesan with tofu cheese and “nomato” red sauce, which is an earthy vegetable puree with the texture of marinara sauce. The sauce also comes on a small plate of fluffy polenta. At lunch, the sauce is a vivid red from beets and carrots; by dinner, the color fades to a brown curry hue.

If you’re a basic “meat-and-potato” vegetarian, you might want to order dinner from the “Real Food Basics” category. Each day there are different beans, rice, sea vegetables, greens and other vegetables to mix and match. One night, I have a gratifying bowl of millet (considered a kind of rice), kale and navy beans. Another night, I try an equally pleasing combination of lima beans, mixed steamed vegetables, kale and napa cabbage.

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“What’s this?” our waitress asks sternly when she comes to clear our dinner dishes. She points. There, in the bottom of my bowl, are two burdock roots. I eat them. I’m not about to argue or dawdle.

Desserts go fast here. One night, I nearly miss out on the sugarless pear apple crisp with a crunchy granola and peanut topping. By the time I down the burdock root, I have to beg for the remaining bit--less than a full portion--from the cook. I make up the difference with a dense, wonderfully sandy macaroon dipped in bittersweet carob frosting.

* Real Food Daily, 514 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 451-7544. Lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. No alcohol. American Express, MasterCard, Visa. Dinner for two, food only, $12-$45.

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