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

Danielle Lirette
Jamaican jerk tempeh at Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant. View more of Leaf's dishes in our slideshow.
Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant
2010 16th Street, Boulder

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

Danielle Lirette
The interior of Leaf.
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.

Danielle Lirette
Couscous salad at Leaf.
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.

Location Info

Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant

2010 16th St., Boulder, CO

Category: Restaurant

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DonkeyHotay topcommenter

If Vegetarian Fare was always as flavorful and satisfying as Leaf, it would be easy for the world to live without meat.


"Servers walked by our table for ten minutes before finally stopping to greet us".  This is a deal-breaker for me.  No matter how good the food is, I will literally never step foot back into a restaurant when this happens.  It drives me absolutely nuts when server after server walk by your table, make eye contact with you, and keep walking while you sit there looking pathetic at an empty table.  Shameful.

DonkeyHotay topcommenter

@eefette ... unfortunately, as excellent as the food is at many Boulder eateries, the wait and service staff tend to be disinterested College Students working their way through school.

At least they didn't hire that "restaurant consultant" who claims -- and still asserts -- that a LOUD RESTAURANT is "the sexiest thing in the world".

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