Lunch at Native Foods a few years ago marked my first foray into vegan cuisine. That afternoon, my vocabulary expanded to make room for "tempeh" and "seitan" and "quinoa." Dunking a sweet-potato fry into vegan ranch dressing, I was suddenly awash in rainbow-colored feelings of wonderment and awe. After all, at the time, Native Foods was one of only a few eateries offering an entirely vegan menu.
Since then, things have changed considerably. Mere mention of kale doesn't cause eyebrows to rise in confusion, and restaurants serving up vegan, gluten-free fare are no longer the oddballs.
Take Trilogy Sanctuary, which opened recently in La Jolla (7650 Girard Ave.). The café, yoga studio and spiritual center is owned by Joe Caldera, who also oversees a spiritual coaching business, and Leila Dora, a yoga teacher. Chef Scott Steele helms the vegan and gluten-free café located beside the outdoor aerial yoga deck, meaning you can ogle gravity-defying acrobats while waiting for your food. The café sits on a 2,000-square-foot roof terrace overlooking the ocean, and on a recent Sunday afternoon, with the falling sun setting it aglow, it brimmed with the kind of glittery optimism of which I am usually suspicious.
My suspicions were quelled when I saw the chalkboard menu—an ambitious, expansive collection of breakfast items, salads, bowls, wraps and rolls. The menu boasts 100-percent organic, vegan, gluten-free and soy-free fare. An extensive dessert list stars familiar favorites like cheesecake and brownie and apple pie, but a closer reading of the descriptions reveals major differences. In the apple pie, cashew cream substitutes for the dairy stuff, and the cheesecake is no cheese and all nuts.
My one criticism of vegan restaurants is their constant referencing to non-vegan foods within their menus, which I read as a desperate attempt to remain relevant. Trilogy's BLTrilogy Crepe features "eggplant bacon" that bears no resemblance to the porky original. Squishy chunks of eggplant are satisfying, yes, but nothing like the salty, oily Sunday-morning breakfast staple. The BLTrilogy Crepe's looks are also not very convincing: a porous, buckwheat crepe reminds me of mulch. The spongy texture offset by crisped edges is pleasant, though, and I soon forgot about the eggplant's failed attempt to copy the inimitable bacon.
Trilogy's Two Perfect Tacos are really, really good. A crunchy house-made corn tortilla hugs quinoa chorizo, roasted sweet potatoes, eggplant bacon, avocado and a spicy almond sauce. Somehow, the jumble of ingredients ties together cleanly, producing flavor that is focused and direct.
Trilogy's Dip-o-Mania platter has raw celery and carrot sticks, organic dehydrated veggie chips and a trio of house-made dips. The result is a fun-to-eat splattering of colors and tastes and textures, an imaginative spin on the standard veggie-and-dip platter. The dips, especially the spicy chipotle sauce, are especially tasty.
The eggplant bacon appears a second time in the Spectacular Spaghetti Squash, a texturally unappealing dish that is nevertheless hearty, enriched by a cashew-based "cheese" sauce.
Trilogy Sanctuary's imaginative and experimental menu is nowhere near perfect, but it's good enough to lure you back.