Review: Leaf's menu is a passage to adventure -- but the road can get bumpy
Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant
Danielle Lirette Jamaican jerk tempeh at Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant. View more of Leaf's dishes in our slideshow.
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.
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.
Danielle Lirette The interior of Leaf.
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.
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.
Danielle Lirette Couscous salad at Leaf.
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.