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Stealth health food

Vegan cuisine goes undercover

With white linen tablecloths and soft lighting, Tarzana’s Madeleine Bistro looks like any of the hundreds of restaurants on the 15-mile stretch of Ventura Boulevard. And that’s the point.

“We’ve had couples get through the whole meal and not realize it was a vegan restaurant until they asked for cream with the coffee,” says Molly Anderson, who owns Madeleine with her chef husband, David.

“Those are our favorite customers,” she says. “And they always bring someone back.”

For all the jokes about wheatgrass and bean sprouts, Los Angeles has been light years behind New York, San Francisco and Tokyo when it comes to modern-day vegan and macrobiotic cuisine.

That’s starting to change.

Squeezed into a storefront near Melrose and La Brea (and within sniffing distance of carnivore hangout Pink’s), over the last six months M Café de Chaya has become a ferociously popular offshoot of Chaya Brasserie. With white tile and natural wood furniture that echoes New York’s Dean and Deluca, M Café bears no trace of your hippie mom’s health-food restaurant.

“We didn’t want a place where people felt they had to take their shoes off, face the ocean and pray,” says Chaya marketing and operations chief Lawrence Moore. “We’re about the cuisine, not a lifestyle.”

Similarly, Fatty’s in Eagle Rock employs a stealth-vegetarian strategy. The menu includes cheese (rennet-free), but the bacon is tempeh and the sushi rolls contain tofu. Odds are you’d never know the difference.

“We don’t advertise it,” says Aude Charles, who owns Fatty’s with Kim Dingle. “Food is food for us. People come here for years without knowing.”

Those might sound like fighting words to Ann Gentry, whose Real Food Daily has served as the city’s vegan linchpin since 1993. (It’s also the Andersons’ stomping grounds.) However, Gentry believes RFD “raised the standards and expectations (for vegan cuisine). We’ve never preached or proselytized,” she says. “(But) sometimes you want a more high-end experience. Real Food is just that: Food for every day.”

PLACE: M Café de Chaya
7119 Melrose Ave.
(323) 525-0588
PHILOSOPHY: Macrobiotic
WHAT WORKS: Melt-in-your-mouth cranberry walnut french toast and crispy tempeh bacon; Gado-Gado had us gaga over golden tempeh triangles. Also brilliant: scarlet quinoa salad and the just-seared Ahi tuna burger with organic fries and homemade ketchup.
WHAT DOESN’T: Sushi is nothing special. And a policy of no refined sugar makes desserts hit (chocolate cupcakes!) and miss (tarte tatin).

PLACE: Madeleine Bistro
18621 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana
(818) 758-6971
WHAT WORKS: Weekend brunch is cinnamon beignets and a fresh-squeezed Creamsicle; for dinner, try the red beet tartare served on a warm and crusty round of creamy tofu-based cheese and smoked portobello mushroom with nondairy crème fraiche.
WHAT DOESN’T: No specials for our dinner visit and a menu entrée was delisted. There was just one waiter on duty during brunch, with predictable results.

PLACE: Fatty’s & Co.
1627 Colorado Blvd.
Eagle Rock
(323) 254-8804
PHILOSOPHY: Stealth vegetarian
WHAT WORKS: Sloppy joe bruschetta is addictive; ginger “chicken” is finger-licking good. Wine list and soju cocktails. A magazine stand features titles ranging from Bark to Vanity Fair.
WHAT DOESN’T: Staff can be scattered. Liked the herbed “cream” cheese, but it was stuffed inside bland black olives.

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