I don't remember Culver City being cool.
I don't remember Culver City being anything except the nearest Target and Costco to Santa Monica when we lived on the Westside.
I certainly don't remember Culver City having a happening downtown near SPE.
Nevertheless, it was a birthday celebration and it needed to be Westside-ish and it needed to be vegetarian-friendly, so M Café de Chaya it was. Right on Culver Boulevard in downtown Culver City where Washington twines itself round (what IS it with oblique intersections in that city??).
I guess I was expecting what in New Jersey would be called a "waiter service" restaurant. I wasn't expecting a counter of food with a menu in addition; I wasn't expecting rustic seat-yourself tables and a big patio; and I CERTAINLY was not expecting the food to be as good as it was. My experiences with diet-specific (vegetarian, vegan, etc.) restaurants have resulted in my asking why the flavour has to be gone in order for it to conform to the diet.
Odd, then, that macrobiotics, which tries to avoid strong spice as too "yin" (stimulating), would tickle my fancy so much. And for those who, like me, are somewhat disdainful of restrictive diets, here's the oversimplified version of macrobiotics: whole grains as a staple, with no red meat, poultry, dairy or eggs, few strong spices, and sparing use of nightshade plants (eggplant, tomatoes, etc.)
We showed up, a group of 12, in the morning and ordered food. The stuff in the counter coolers looked really appetising -- scarlet quinoa with beets, wasabi sweet potatoes, white bean salad, a lentil salad, and some extremely good-looking brown rice sushi, mostly inari with various toppings. The pastries looked fantastic, the breads looked appealing, all was well.
I ordered some Greek salad and the breakfast cranberry-walnut French toast with soy butter (which I ignored) and real maple syrup, and coffee. My wife ordered the M Chopped Salad, an inari with seaweed on top, and a brown rice sushi roll. Others had other things like blueberry pancakes, or brown rice bowls with tempeh, or grilled salmon with brown rice and miso soup.
The Greek salad was very good -- I would skip the tofu they use in place of cheese, but otherwise it was excellent -- heavy on bell peppers, which is a happy thing for me since I love them. The French toast was incredible -- I would go back just for that toast, which is made from whole-grain cranberry walnut bread, but I'd skip the cranberry compote, which tasted strongly (and unexpectedly, which was the problem) of anise. You would never know that no eggs or dairy went into the French toast, it's that good.
The coffee was bad -- I hate when you can taste the cheap aluminium pot in the coffee -- and I had the unusual experience of adding maple sugar (because refined sugar is not allowed in the macrobiotic diet) and soy milk, which gave it a very, very odd taste, though not necessarily a bad thing given the badness of the coffee. (Seriously, guys, for $2.75 a cup you can brew it in something better than a garage-sale reject.)
I had a bite or two of the M chopped salad but that was it. I do not -- I refuse to -- eat tempeh. I think that second to natto, it is one of the most vile foodstuffs ever to come out of Asia. The salad was absolutely strewn with tempeh "bacon" crumbles. The salad, once you got past that, was very good, however. As for the inari, it was excellent -- again, I could see just having the sushi there. I love brown rice, and brown rice sushi in tofu skin is totally right up my alley.
The blueberry pancakes, made with fresh blueberries, were delicious (and anyplace that uses real maple syrup gets extra points from me). I had a bite of the salmon and it was served cold, but was moist and delicious.
We punted on dessert, though I debated a fig-and-pear mille-feuille. Ultimately what made me decide against it was the price ($6.25, though it was a very large mille-feuille).
My only quibble is the price -- it is very expensive and though the portions are reasonable (read: you're not going to get Claim Jumper type portions here, but you're not getting one lonely slice of tuna with three dots of wasabi sauce artistically arranged near it like a thought bubble either), I felt like $35 was a lot for two meals (we shared with our baby).
A note about the service: there was a snafu when another part of our group ordered, which resulted in the birthday boy and his daughter missing their food. They were very gracious about it and comped one of the meals, though they didn't have to. The food comes out fairly quickly.
All in all, and this may be the first time I say this about a restaurant dedicated to a diet I don't follow, it's really good. Everything is seasoned well, it's all well-cooked, and it's fairly accessible to non-practitioners of the macrobiotic diet. Aunt Selma from Topeka could eat there and only snicker inwardly about Californians and their diets, instead of flat-out refusing the way she would at Real Food Daily.
Oh, and if you live in the area of either one, they deliver (I believe for a fee).
Check it out. If I, an avowed eater of meat, chile peppers and other yin-overdriving foods, can look at it and think, "wow, damn, that looks good," most people can.
M Cafe De Chaya
7119 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90046
M Cafe De Chaya
9343 Culver Blvd, Culver City, CA 90232