Buffets don't trigger the "urgent, must-try" sensor in most diners' minds. Instead, they often recall tepid chicken and runny scrambled eggs. Extend that to vegan food, with visions of harsh crudités and bland tofu, and most diners might sprint towards the nearest exit.
Those are the mental hurdles downtown Mountain View's 3-month old vegan cafe, The Phoenix, must defeat with its signature weekday lunch buffet. It rises with victory.
Roughly a dozen choices tempt at the buffet's three warm stations. When the tops open, fragrances of cumin, basil and other spices escape, displaying a chef's touch in a culinary genre that is usually more about mass production.
The buffet is $12.95 for all-you-can-eat if dining in, compared to $6.95 for two items in a to-go box and $10.95 for four to-go items. Considering the care in preparation and the volume of food one can consume, it's very fair price.
Start your plate with fluffy couscous, unless you'd prefer to veer Italian with penne pasta lightly tossed with pesto and mushrooms. The real challenge that lies ahead is not cramming too much on one plate. Enormous heads of lightly battered and fried cauliflower with a hint of heat from Cajun spices are exemplary. The interior of the vegetable straddles the delicate line between tender and creamy.
Another hit on the buffet line is cheese-less baked eggplant Parmesan. Nobody misses the dairy since the meaty eggplant and nicely seasoned tomato sauce would be overwhelmed by it.
Snap peas and other vegetables get tossed with a creamy coconut curry, and for a filling option, grab a heaping spoonful of robust lentils with slivers of carrots. Yes, there is a tofu offering, and make sure to try it -- sturdy, not crumbly, cubes elevated with a lemon-pesto sauce.
A fourth station, a cold tapas bar, includes a must-try orange and olive salad that deftly marries sweet and salty. The weekend brunch brings more of a sweet edge to the display, with fruit salads and jams, plus scrambled tofu.
After a year-and-a-half run as juice bar The Liquid Menu, chef-owner Jay Essadki shifted towards a daytime cafe to educate diners about eating right, or, as he puts it, "Vegan is health."
Cooking is very much in Essadki's background. In 2008 at the age of 25, he and his brother founded Morocco's Restaurant across the street. He remains chef-owner there, too.
At his new venture, Essadki sells a collection of virtuous spices, herbs, fruits, and nuts called the "Elements," which offer different purported health benefits. Buy them retail or add them to one of the dozen, usually kale-based, veggie juices ($5.45 for 12 ounces) or almond milk-based smoothies, such as the "Forever Young" with mango, acai, pineapple, banana and no almond milk at $4.65. You can "boost" your drink for $1.25 with some ginger or activated charcoal. The latter does indeed make your smoothie pitch black and make you feel cleansed -- at least until happy hour starts at one of Castro Street's bars down the street.
After tasting a juicy, vegan burger earlier this year from a new plant-based food company, the outspoken and influential New York chef David Chang was so impressed he declared, "Today I tasted the future and it was vegan." Unfortunately, you won't be making such grand remarks about The Phoenix's a la carte offerings.
It's a lot of good, but far from spectacular, variations of avocado, grains and diced tomatoes. They become repetitive after multiple visits. A quinoa and black bean salad ($7.65) needed tofu ($2 extra). The Oriental red rice salad with corn, tomato, and cucumber was pleasant, if indifferent. My favorite was the tofu and avocado rice bowl, despite a matcha guacamole that had no notes of the green tea and a barely detectable ginger peanut sauce ($6.75). The best part of the bowl were the "Phoenix" chips (like pita chips) added for a garnish.
All the avocado and grains might tempt you to elect for breakfast offerings despite the hour. In that case, stick to a fruit and chia seed cup ($4.65) or channel your inner fourth-grader with the banana and almond butter sandwich ($4.65). The sandwich is fine but could use an additional element to become something restaurant-worthy.
One note on tea with your breakfast -- all of them are strongly flavored. If you're a regular iced tea or Earl Grey drinker, you're out of luck.
The Phoenix's bright room can only hold about 15 guests, since the buffet tables and a diminutive kitchen take up half the space. Seating is at a couple of tables and high counter-tops at the window. Diners order at the front door after being greeted by Essadki, similar to how sushi chefs greet diners. His enthusiasm pervades the room, and he will gladly tell you about the benefits of turmeric or how apples aid digestion during a service lull.
You don't have to be vegan and you don't have to be enthusiastic about buffets to appreciate The Phoenix, which offers the Midpeninsula an entirely different version of the power lunch.
650 Castro St. #130, Mountain View
Hours: Monday to Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: street and nearby lots
Outdoor seating: no
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: quiet
Bathroom cleanliness: good