The late '70s. California. Macrobiotic cooking. Wacky New Age cults. Jogging. Yoga. Tibetan Buddhism. Jerry Brown and Linda Ronstadt. Uri Geller. Wheat germ. Meditation. The Esalen Institute. UFOs. Patty Hearst. Est. And my own personal fashion icon, the Reverend Jim Jones, the man who made guayaberas and dark sunglasses look so damn cool.
You've just endured a flashback to pre-Ronald Reagan America, induced by my recent outings to the Mandala Tearoom, an "organic vegetarian kitchen," which puts the "ick" in organic with teas that taste like soap and "elixirs" and "tonics" the flavor of spearmint mouthwash. For eats, there's "living cuisine," i.e., raw food that tastes like wood shavings. You can bite into a sammy named for one of the four points of the compass north, south, east or west. Or have your yin and yang stroked with a "soup inspiration" and the salad of your choice.
It's the sort of grub that gave vegan-vegetarian cuisine its bad rep to begin with, the kind of comestibles that'll send you screaming toward the nearest Nogales hot dog stand for a bacon-wrapped Mexican wiener drenched in mayo. Mandala tries that old trick of, "Sure it tastes crappy, but it's good for you," and I have no doubt that if you noshed this stuff on a regular basis, you'd end up looking like Gandhi or Nicole Richie, take your pick. Maybe that's why during the day, the place is filled with first wives club members scared stiff that their doctor/lawyer hubbies will dump them for someone 20 years their junior if they eat a slice of pizza. I've got bad news for you, ladies: He's gonna dump you anyway, no matter how many yoga classes you take or salads you nibble. You can lose fat, but you can't lose age.
Mandala's menu states, "We strive to make vegan dining fun and exciting, stimulating all five tastes and senses." And there are a handful of items on the menu that are okay, but nothing you'd make a return trip for, unless you're a restaurant critic who has to dine at a place two or three times before dissing it. The bite-size tea crumpets were probably the best item on the menu, mimicking bruschetta with spreads like artichoke and garlic, white bean hummus with sautéed greens, and roasted tomato and fennel. The toasted spelt focaccia spelt is a type of wheat popular with health-food nuts had a nice, toothsome quality to it. You probably wouldn't think twice of this app if it were served in a non-vegan eatery.
The casa mandala nachos don't amaze, but neither do they offend. Here blue corn tortilla chips straight out of the bag are drizzled over with soy sour cream, and topped with tiny brown adzuki beans, roasted corn, tomato salsa, and a dollop of guacamole. Eight bucks for an appetizer portion such as this one seems a tad steep, but that's the cost of going green, folks. The pricing turns insulting when you come to the tempeh lettuce wraps, a small pile of tempeh and rice noodles with lettuce and a hoisin peanut dip. The hoisin peanut dip saved it from being a complete gag fest. Tempeh is a fermented soybean meat substitute, and with these rice noodles, it's too dry and flavorless to be appealing. Though, as I say, the dip does help a bit. Still, $8 for a minuscule plate that blows as bad as this one makes me want to pelt someone with spelt, tempeh, tofu, and whatever else I can get my hands on.
The teriyaki lettuce wraps offered an improvement. Basically, this starter is just an itty bit of slaw in a small bowl, mixed with almonds and a tangy lime-shoyu dressing, with a few lettuce leaves to the side. I hate to keep harping on this, as the Snottsdale types can afford it. But do you know how much of Mandala's munchables you'd have to inhale to achieve fullness? Reminds me of this modern-day fakir I read about once who survived on a diet of aromas alone, no solids or liquids, and remained in relatively good shape. Hope I didn't give Mandala any ideas with that one.
I adore gazpacho, especially when summer's baking us like Cornish hens. But the mango gazpacho served me once as one of Mandala's soups of the day was a horrid, yellow goo, like that kids' stuff you throw against a wall and watch as it works its way down. The eggplant soup on another occasion was better, a hardy, purplish-brown purée of aubergines in dire need of some spice. The curry carrot soup had the best taste of all, but was ruined by being served to me lukewarm. Either chilled or hot would've been better.
The summer vegetable ratatouille sits at the top of the entree heap, but that's not saying much. It was more like a penne pasta with marinara sauce, and a so-so one at that. The "live" pesto zucchini linguini is "live" because the food is not "dead," or cooked. You guessed it, it's a salad, with cherry tomatoes, pine nuts, and ribbons of zucchini (Mandala's "linguini"). The menu promised a "creamy pesto sauce," but my grub was as dry as week-old Pima County roadkill. Guess my goofy waiter was too busy practicing his mantra to make sure the dish was ready before he plopped it on my table. Or maybe they were lying about the pesto sauce. Who knows?
The vegan BLT with fake bacon had a vaguely porcine taste to it, but it only made me long for the real thing. For dessert, I sampled the chocolate cake and the blueberry Bundt cake. Each lacked that richness that comes with the inclusion of milk and eggs. Some of the weird witches' brews of oils and herbs referred to as elixirs and tonics in-house did occasionally have a kick to them, like the "long life elixir" with its overriding flavor of damiana. But others are just gross, like the "just chillin' elixir," which, as stated above, was too similar to Scope for my enjoyment. Some of the teas, too, I couldn't get with, like the "coconut crème." Smelled like Hawaiian Tropic, and tasted like an Ivory soap bar, only melted. Blech!
Mandala's an attractive enough spot, with colorful paintings of mandalas on the walls and the relaxing aura of Santa Monica circa 1978. Sadly, the food's not worthy of a recommendation. If you're curious, this'll be the last veggie restaurant I'll review for a long while. Mandala's menu was so pathetic, the place put me right back on animal flesh indefinitely!
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.