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Review: Jonathan Gold didn’t expect a Nick Erven vegan restaurant, but it might be L.A.'s best vegan dining

When you walk into Erven, Nick Erven’s newish restaurant in Santa Monica, you may not immediately place it as vegan. There’s a kind of deli counter up front selling salads and sandwiches to go, and the guy at the host station may hand you a shot glass of sangria as a gesture of goodwill. The smell may be typical of vegan restaurants, the funk of many simmering brassicas instead of the scent of charring meat — but the sharp angles and textile blocks of the double-height dining room seem more welcoming than they did when this space was Real Food Daily.

The snacks that everybody seems to be popping into their mouths — jet-black squares of chickpea fritter scented with yuzu; crisply fried sunchokes with what tastes like a cross between romesco sauce and ketchup; crunchy nuggets of savory deep-fried dates — are pretty much what you would expect to taste in a sleek tasting-menu restaurant. You bite down into what looks like a doughnut hole, and although the sour, dark purée of sauerkraut and smoked apples squirts halfway across the table cloth, it is hard to see how Nick Erven has anything but pure animal pleasure on his mind.

Los Angeles is at the moment smack in the age of vegetable-focused cooking, a style that seems to be with us as much for the challenges that carrots present to a creative chef as for the usual reasons of health and environmental responsibility. Half of the new menus in town, even the steakhouses, have Brussels sprouts and charred cabbages at their core. The difference between the regular tasting menu and the vegetarian tasting menu at places such as Trois Mec are negligible. Some mainstream chefs are looking as much to the old Moosewood books as they are at the principles set down by Alice Waters and Alain Passard. Los Angeles restaurants may not be reverting to the era when the city was known for places such as the Source and the Golden Temple of Conscious Cookery, but the flood of sprouts, brewer’s yeast and cauliflower-instead-of-cheese is rising like the tide.

It will not be long before the obligate omnivores among us will be pawing menus the way our vegetarian friends always have, looking for a token scrap of flesh among the parsnips.

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Still, not many of the better chefs in town have gone all the way toward vegan cooking, unless you count Tal Ronnen of Crossroads Kitchen, who has always been on the vegan end of things, or Matthew Kenney, whose Venice raw-foods empire seems like kind of a different thing.

So I’d never thought of Nick Erven as anything like a vegan chef. His menus at Tart rang clear changes on standard American comfort food, and the dishes people tended to rave about at his late Koreatown restaurant, Saint Martha, were his steak tartare with oysters, his asparagus with lardo and his pecan-smoked brisket. Erven wasn’t the last chef you might have expected to run a vegan restaurant — his seaweed “doritos’’ with avocado and the Japanese spice mixture togarashi, occasionally on the menu here, had lots of fans — but it is not where I thought his future might lie.

But here he is, wine list filled with well-priced biodynamic wines that suit the zaps of acidity in his cooking, arranging tiny roasted beets around splooshes of avocado mousse and beet sorbet, sprinkling crumbs of popcorn over a composition of soft tofu and tiny burnt Brussels sprouts in a puddle of tart ponzu sauce, and positioning crumbly, slightly dry chunks of “falafel” on a dense bed of what tasted a lot like tapenade.

If you remember his dish of mixed cabbages in yeast broth at Saint Martha, you’ll find something like it here, enhanced with mushrooms and twisty strands of pasta. If you would rather be eating a burger, the slab of beer-battered tofu on a bun with pickles and slaw has almost all the sensations of a drippy hamburger — the sour punch, the toasty bun, and a meatiness lent by the spicy Mexican sauce manchamantel — a vegan “burger” without a hint of fake meat or animal-free cheese.

Roasted carrots with spicy yogurt have become a staple in L.A.; Erven substitutes a coconut sorbet and pushes the direction of the dish toward Bangkok with tangy tamarind Sriracha and a handful of Thai herbs. A black-eyed pea stew with braised collards leans toward the African American table; Korean “gnocchi” turn out to be a version of the street food dish tteokbokki, thick cylinders of toasted rice cake in a kimchi-flavored sauce. (You probably don’t want the stodgy tamales, no matter how good a lime-horseradish gremolata might sound.)

Could Erven be the best vegan restaurant in Los Angeles? It’s certainly the best one that I’ve been to; clever, complex cooking that lets vegetables taste like themselves instead of analogues to forbidden products – it’s about what Mr. Erven puts in, not about what he leaves out. But I remain skeptical of his desserts – bean-soaking liquid is less subtle than egg whites, no matter how skillfully you whip them into a meringue, and deep-fried chocolate pudding is not a doughnut, no matter how much it may look like one. The next time I visit, I may finish with another sauerkraut-stuffed doughnut hole.

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Erven

A new Santa Monica restaurant specializes in vegan cuisine.

LOCATION

514-516 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 260-2255, ervenrestaurant.com

PRICES

Snacks $5-$6; small plates $11-$14; large plates $15-$21; desserts $8; “Taste of Erven’’ menu, $35 per person.

DETAILS

Lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily; dinner 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sun.-Thurs., 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine. Valet parking evenings on 5th Street at Santa Monica Boulevard.

RECOMMENDED DISHES

Savory doughnut holes; soft tofu with Brussels sprouts; beer-battered tofu sandwich.

MORE REVIEWS FROM JONATHAN GOLD

Jonathan Gold reviews P.Y.T., a vegetable-centered nirvana in L.A.

Destroyer in Culver City disrupts the idea of fine dining like nowhere else on Earth

Jonathan Gold finds strong flavors and a splendid bar at Here’s Looking at You in Koreatown


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