Vegan and gluten-free cooking reach new heights at this Berkeley bistro, an actual sanctuary.
Sliced into palm-sized wedges arrayed point-outwards as if too shy to face each other, the gluten-free waffle stands nearly an inch tall: in waffle terms, towering. Atop each exquisite, air-pockety blonde wedge rests a smaller, firmer, smoky-golden wedge of pan-fried Hodo Soy tofu. Its salty-crispy exterior and tender-juicy interior are a nod toward the fried chicken adorning waffles in countless restaurants that, unlike this one, serve meat and wheat.
The plating of this comparatively compassionate take on a brunch-time classic is a work of geometric genius: quadruple double triangles topping a big square dish. Like urgent squirty calligraphy zigzagging it all is creamy Dijon-mustard sauce that looks and sounds savory and starts that way in the mouth but becomes startlingly then seductively sweet.
Stippled and speckled, made mainly of rice and tapioca flours, this waffle is unmistakably waffle-colored and waffle-shaped, its deep quadratical canyons awaiting the maple syrup and house-made soy-based butter that share a wooden tabletop with pink Himalayan salt and a candleholder handcrafted from a bisected wine bottle. Tasting that familiar, merry-morning flavor, you think exultantly: Waffle.
But this waffle does not cut like a waffle, which is to say: easily, with just a fork. Sundering these wedges mandates a strong wrist wielding a serrated knife.
Which begs the questions: Is a wheatless waffle still a waffle? Is cashew “cheese” still cheese? Are the zucchini “noodles” in raw “lasagna” really noodles in lasagna? On restaurant menus, what does and does not belong inside quotation marks? Is an eggless spinach, squash, and caramelized leek soufflé, however fluffy, an abomination or a revelation?
Talk about blurred lines.
In the airy, woodsy West Berkeley space formerly occupied by Banzai Sushi, Sanctuary Bistro serves organic, seasonal, local, vegan, and gluten-free fare. That’s all it serves, and it does so not by focusing sickroomishly on the “limitations” aspect of “dietary limitations,” but adoringly, wittily, proudly, inventively, and artfully, as if gluten-free vegan food was not two convergent fringe realms but rather the world’s single best, maybe only, kind of cuisine. Nearly everything at Sanctuary Bistro, from Kansas-bred Chef Barry Horton’s flaxseed crackers to his powdered-sugar-dusted, coconut-ice-cream-crowned signature dessert, bananas Foster, is house-made. The only canned ingredient Horton uses is coconut milk.
Vegan cooking and gluten-free cooking are two separate exercises in substitution, imitation, ingenuity, chemistry, and faith. Combine both cuisines, and the challenges become epic. Consider the crucial matter of texture—of achieving without animal products or barley, wheat, and rye the chewiness, creaminess, crispiness, fluffiness, and “meatiness” that our species has evolved to expect.
Yet Horton’s gratifyingly rich, stand-your-spoon-up-in-it chocolate parfait is creamy indeed. And his deservedly popular shiitake “bacon”—is there nothing that exotic mushrooms can’t mimic?—snaps winsomely between the teeth like you-know-what.
With such fare comes (for those on whom gluten and dairy wreak gastric disaster) fear-free confidence and (for those who hate gristle, blood, bones, skin, and slaughter) ethical assurances that these oyster-mushroom “crab” cakes and lemon-peppercorn-cashew “chevre” are neither cruel, unsustainable, nor gross.
For both such demographics, relegated at most restaurants to the sad quinoa salad, Sanctuary is a sanctuary: a soy-joy shrine to tender smoked-almond-stuffed stone fruit and hearty potato-tempeh shepherd’s pie. Sacred libations? Local java (Oakland-based Timeless Coffee). Local tea (Oakland-based Numi). Synergy kombucha on tap. Low- and no-sulfite California wines, including sparklers. Local gluten-free beers. And hark: A percentage of Sanctuary’s proceeds is donated to the Vacaville shelter Animal Place. Amen!
Le Cordon Bleu–trained Chef Barry and his wife Jennifer Jones Horton met when both worked at Mendocino eco-resort Stanford Inn by the Sea, where he helmed The Ravens restaurant and she was the events planner.
“Once we started dating,” Jones Horton remembers, “we started learning more and more about animals and our impact as human beings on the environment.”
They went vegan in unison.
“I’d been transitioning toward that since I was a teenager. I’d given up red meat and other types of food bit by bit,” says Jones Horton, who also has celiac disease. “So, for me, this had been a 15-year journey. For Barry, it virtually happened overnight.”
After relocating to the East Bay in 2009, the pair launched Local Love Catering, whose pies were particularly popular.
“Sugar breaks you in,” Horton laughs. “People kept asking us, ‘When will you open a restaurant?’ In fact, that had been our dream for a long time.”
In a Kickstarter campaign video, Jones Horton sat beside her toddler and baby while describing the couple’s vision of a “plant-based fine-dining” establishment:
“We feel that it’s important to spread compassion, love, and kindness throughout the planet,” she intoned. “We treat animals respectfully. We practice world peace. That’s why we don’t eat …”
“Animals,” the toddler interjected.
The campaign succeeded. Confabs such as an Oct. 5 vegan-dating meetup now happen here. Suspended from the ceiling, foliage-down, are hanging planters created by San Francisco’s Flora Grubb Gardens. A long wooden counter whispers “former sushi bar.”
“One thing we’ve tried to do is reduce our impact in every way possible,” Jones Horton says. “So it was important to us to use whatever we could that was already here” decorwise. Rather than redesign an already usable space, the Hortons focused on refining seasonally shifting brunch, lunch and dinner menus.
Nearly all the produce served here comes from Dixon-based Eatwell Farm. Produce predominates in both vegan and gluten-free cuisines and, at Sanctuary, shines in fresh berry waffles, heirloom-tomato succotash, porcini “ravioli,” squash-cashew soup, strawberry-cashew “cheesecake,” macadamia-miso salad, baby-beet salad with “bleu cheese” dressing, and so much more.
One standout is the oddly named “Blatt-Dilla,” comprising lettuce, avocado, shiitake “bacon,” heirloom tomato, and Rhizocali tempeh folded into a brown-rice tortilla, served with sautéed potato cubes and steamed dinosaur kale.
Despite its conceptually Hispanic origins, and despite the server’s offer of bottled hot sauce, the dish offers a fresh, frank mildness that is actually a subersive, transgressive, priceless gift for those of us who wish Homo sapiens had never discovered hot peppers.
Then comes “Rawlmond Joy”: an almond-coconut-cocoa-ganache bar.
Oh, hippie food: What a long, strange trip it’s been.
Hippiedom was largely invented in Berkeley, then went off and established colonies elsewhere. One such colony, formerly a blue-collar fishing village, was Mendocino. Moving from there to here and opening Sanctuary Bistro, the Hortons are latter-generation colonists, returning hippie food to the homeland, but with 21st-century twists.
Just as everything else about America has diversified since 1967, so has hippie food. Originally, it was “healthy” and cheap. Today, it is “healthy” (backing slowly away from Paleo-vegan debate) and spendy, because nuts, fancy oils, and alternative flours can cost a fortune, and coaxing coconuts to act like eggs is labor-intensive.
But the idea of framing hippie food as fine dining is no longer, as it would have been to our grandparents, hilarious.
1019 Camelia St., Berkeley, 510-558-3381,
Open Mon. & Wed.-Fri. 11am-3pm & 5:30-6:30pm; Sat.-Sun. 8:30am-3pm & 5:30-9pm
Entrées $9–$19. Cash & major credit cards. Wine & beer.