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REVIEW: M Café de Chaya, Culver City

Das Ubergeek Sep 21, 2008 11:05 PM

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.

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M Cafe De Chaya
7119 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90046

M Cafe De Chaya
9343 Culver Blvd, Culver City, CA 90232

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  1. d
    Diana Sep 22, 2008 06:52 AM

    Great report! I've always wanted to try M cafe, and now feel like I want to even more!

    1. t
      tdo Sep 22, 2008 12:57 PM

      I completely agree with you. I'm a meat eater and I really l like the food at M Cafe too.

      1. l
        la tache burger Sep 22, 2008 04:34 PM

        I love M Cafe so much I talk about it all the time ... and I too am a voracious meat eater. Went through a phase recently -- when the CC location opened -- of eating there nearly every day. The place is genius. The Culver City location is super chill compared to the Hollywood location but I find the food to be equally brilliant at both. My favorites: blueberry pancakes, breakfast enchilada (OMG), all sushi, bento box with salmon (my go-to order), the kale with spicy peanut sauce (unbelievably delicious), cauliflower, beet quinoa, big macro, madras wrap, carrot cake, chocolate fudge cake, chocolate torte ...

        2 Replies
        1. re: la tache burger
          SIMIHOUND Sep 22, 2008 09:35 PM

          Das-Great review as ususal...One question....what is SPE?

          1. re: SIMIHOUND
            s
            sel Sep 22, 2008 11:44 PM

            Sony Pictures Entertainment

        2. b
          bulavinaka Sep 22, 2008 10:10 PM

          You've nailed the place for my vegan sister's B-day... Thanks and great review as always...

          8 Replies
          1. re: bulavinaka
            Servorg Sep 23, 2008 09:28 AM

            Just be aware that, (as someone made me) when I recommended this place on another thread looking for vegan recommendations, that it is not vegan but rather "macrobiotic." I am unsure if that is a distinction without a difference, or not.

            1. re: Servorg
              b
              bulavinaka Sep 23, 2008 09:42 AM

              Servorg, thanks for the heads-up - your input is always appreciated. Based on DU's info, it sounds like they have some good choices for just about everyone. I'll scan their menu for items that might be vegan-friendly. When I see terms like tempeh, no red meat, poultry, dairy or eggs, french toast with no eggs or dairy, this is very promising for my sister. The other things I'd be weary of would be seafood (like dashi) or sweeteners (like honey) possibly being infused for flavor for the most part. Usually, we end up just staying home and make enhanced bovine feed to placate my sister's conscious at the expense of more variety for us less ethical beings... :)

              1. re: bulavinaka
                Das Ubergeek Sep 23, 2008 11:24 AM

                Macrobiotics is not vegan, but there are many vegan choices -- anything that doesn't contain fish would be vegan, since no red meat, poultry or dairy is consumed. Fish is part of the macrobiotic diet, apparently, because they had a really appetizing-looking display of cold grilled salmon in the counter cooler, and inari with seared tuna in the sushi display.

                They do use sweeteners for some things -- for example, the compote with the French toast is made with maple sugar, and they give you small packets of maple sugar (and soy milk) for your coffee.

                If your sister is vegan, this is a place where she will have a wide range of choices. If she's also picky, that's her own problem.

                1. re: Das Ubergeek
                  b
                  bulavinaka Sep 23, 2008 11:40 AM

                  DU, thanks for the added input. I did see that you mentioned maple syrup (the real stuff) but I've learned to never take things for granted when it comes to my sister's dietary habits. She is picky about ingredients of course, but she embraces any dish that falls under her guidelines and that she can't do herself, which means she'll enjoy everything at M Chaya... :)

                2. re: bulavinaka
                  e
                  exilekiss Sep 23, 2008 03:17 PM

                  Hi bulavinaka,

                  Oh wow, your sister can't even have Honey as part of any of the dishes she orders here? I had no idea Vegans couldn't eat Honey.

                  1. re: exilekiss
                    b
                    bulavinaka Sep 23, 2008 03:32 PM

                    Hi exilekiss, yes - honey is technically an animal product, so it's a no go for her at least. As you know, everyone has a different definition for just about everything food-related. On the 1-10 scale, I'd give her a 9.35 rating. About the only vegans who go further than her are raw vegans and maybe some religions (e.g., Jains in India).

                    She was down a few weeks ago and we tried LA Vegan on Centinela in Mar Vista. Basically Thai-vegan takeout with some other dishes that appeal to vegans, she really enjoyed that - we thought it was good "for vegan" takeout which there aren't many of. With my sister's self-imposed restrictive diet, DU's information is a godsend. And I should pay far more closer attention to the details in Servorg's posts as he did mention M Chaya a few weeks ago in a similar thread. The guy is a walking encyclopedia and Zagat guide for Chowhounds all wrapped in one...

                    1. re: bulavinaka
                      Servorg Sep 23, 2008 04:27 PM

                      "The guy is a walking encyclopedia and Zagat guide for Chowhounds all wrapped in one..."

                      LOL - no, no...I'm an enigma wrapped in a won ton skin folded inside pyllo pastry. ;-D

                      1. re: Servorg
                        b
                        bulavinaka Sep 23, 2008 08:31 PM

                        Add Vaudeville to that mix... :)

            2. l
              LMelba Sep 22, 2008 11:26 PM

              I'm a big fan of M Cafe De Chaya, though I find the food at the Melrose location tastier then at the Culver one. They have a curried cauliflower salad that soooo good. All the ready made salads are great, as are their bento to go style meals (I like to sometimes pick one up over the weekend for a weekday office lunch). Their club sandwich is also delish. Agreed, skip the coffee, enjoy their iced tea instead.

              If you aren't of the vegetarian/vegan/health nut persuasion I wouldn't recommend dessert - as they say - no eggs, no dairy, no refined sugar--you will find it to be, dare I say--no taste. That might be a bit harsh, but if you are used to these ingredients - you'll notice that they aren't in the dessert here.

              5 Replies
              1. re: LMelba
                s
                suzyshi Sep 23, 2008 09:18 AM

                Have you ever tried their chocolate chip cookies? I agree that the rest of the desserts are too 'healthy' but those cookies are really good when they are soft.

                1. re: suzyshi
                  l
                  LMelba Sep 23, 2008 09:05 PM

                  Their cookies aren't bad, have you tried the vegan chocolate chip cookies from Leda's? Those are really good!

                  1. re: LMelba
                    d
                    Diana Sep 24, 2008 06:36 AM

                    all Leda's vegan treats are pretty amazing. People won't know they are vegan if you didn't tell them.

                2. re: LMelba
                  l
                  la tache burger Sep 23, 2008 10:44 AM

                  If you put yourself in correct headspace the desserts are extraordinary for their purity, lightness, and lack of making you feel like sh-t after.

                  1. re: la tache burger
                    l
                    LMelba Sep 23, 2008 09:04 PM

                    I'm not saying the desserts aren't good - I'm just explaining that if you aren't used to desserts that don't include eggs, dairy, or sugar - they would look better then they taste. And can be downright disappointing if you are expecting them to taste like their conventional versions.

                    If your taste is accustomed to sweets like this you are good to go - though there are plenty of other healthy vegan desserts to be had at other places that IMO are far superior to the offerings here.

                3. love2eat Sep 23, 2008 01:43 PM

                  I've been on a mostly macrobiotic diet for the past two months and get food from the Melrose location daily. The curried cauliflower and white bean salad are favorites. It's draining my bank account but it's quality.

                  1. Local Sep 23, 2008 02:29 PM

                    agreed, some good stuff- the tofu scramble...and salad goodies...the umeboshi pickled radish, pickled lotus root, and golden/red beets (yum). there were a few things which i categorize under the heading of Interesting or Acquired Taste (means i tried it, to each their own, but thanks, i'll pass) e.g., seitan, tempeh, and the "tofu chevre" - i was expecting a vegetarian "goat's milk" cheese, which it just isn't...my mistake if they really meant tofu "goat", because that's pretty much what it tasted like...but all in all a pleasant dining experience worthy of repeat visits.

                    1. e
                      exilekiss Sep 23, 2008 03:16 PM

                      Hi Das Ubergeek,

                      Excellent review as always. :) I still haven't made it to M Cafe yet, but I will have to soon.

                      But Tempeh as second only to Natto for vileness?? I think Durian would go before Tempeh. (^_~)

                      1. n
                        nick_r Sep 23, 2008 03:20 PM

                        M Cafe isn't the most exciting or happening place in the Culver City restaurant explosion, but for me, a vegetarian, it's been by far the most useful since I can go there for any meal and get food I like. I tend to be picky when it comes to lunch, and most sandwiches don't do it for me -- but the vegan club there is absolutely outstanding. So are many of the salads. Homemade fries are perfect. Too bad the ketchup is strange.

                        One word of advice: skip the desserts. Contrary to popular belief, it is absolutely possible (sometimes even preferable) to make delicious pastries and sweets without a hint of dairy; but M Cafe is not one of the places that can really do it. Head to Mani's on Fairfax for vegan baked goods that will blow you away.

                        1. Vince S Sep 23, 2008 09:04 PM

                          One of the most pretentious places I have been too and most deceiving one at that. Cakes are just overpriced and blend. Way too much hype with this organic vegan theme.

                          If I had the means, I will open a restaurant next to it selling grilled meat.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: Vince S
                            l
                            la tache burger Sep 23, 2008 09:23 PM

                            there are plenty of restaurants nearby selling grilled meat.

                            1. re: Vince S
                              n
                              nick_r Sep 24, 2008 10:11 AM

                              1. It's not vegan; they serve fish.

                              2. It's owned by the same people as Chaya Brasserie, which serves burgers and steaks, so you would not be offending anyone's sensibilities by opening a "grilled meat" restaurant next to it.

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