R: Vegan cuisine reaches delicious nirvana at Erven, a relaxed, yet moderately upscale plant-based restaurant in Santa Monica. The welcoming dining spot, located a few doors from 5th Street and Santa Monica Boulevard, opened in July 2016 and occupies the space where Real Food Daily began serving vegan foods in 1993.
Z: Upon entering, we found ourselves in The Marketplace, an anteroom where casual lunch and take-away salads, sandwiches, and juices are attractively displayed in a refrigerated deli case.
R: A friendly host greeted us and offered a complimentary glass of chilled sangria. That was such a pleasing gesture! All it took was one tasty sip and we knew were in for an enjoyable meal. Then, our host escorted the three of us to a table in the dining room.
Z: Our friend Chuck remembered the former restaurant and noted the dramatic change from its casual, brightly lit, bustling eatery to its present ambience of casual elegance and intimate dining. There were no white tablecloths or fussy crystal stemware--only cloth napkins. At Erven, the focus is on amazing flavors and attentive, caring servers who know the menu well and are able to offer helpful suggestions.
R: The first time we came for dinner, the dining room was so dimly lit, it was difficult to read the menu, and it was pretty hard to see the chef's innovative dishes. On our return one-week later, the owners brought up the lights to offer the perfect gentle glow. The small difference added a touch of warmth to the room and brought visual appreciation of the delicious dishes that came to our table.
Z: The menu is divided into three sections: Snackables are small plates one might label as appetizers--just enough for two or three people to share a few small bites. The Sharables feature seven dishes that are just a bit larger than snackables, but still considered little plates. Entrée plates are listed under Principals and turn a bit heartier in portion and ingredients.
R: Our server, Dylan, suggested each person order one dish from each section and share them. Our choice was to order only five items. We began with the Fried Date Pickles from the Snackables section. From the Shareables we chose Korean Gnocchi and Soft Tofu with Brussels Sprouts. For our Principals, the Kale Cavatelli and Shredded Cabbage Pancake made excellent choices.
Z: We can definitely recommend the Fried Date Pickles, an attractive trio of egg-shaped orbs consisting of plump medjool dates encased in a coating of finely ground panko and then deep-fried until crisp and golden. Garnishing this unique specialty are pickled red onions and a fluff of fresh tarragon.
R: OMG! The Sumatran curry, pine nut, and maple flavors that are part of the ingredients in this dish are challenging to define, yet are what make this awesome Snackable so spectacular in flavor.
Z: The Korean Gnocchi with chickpeas, okra, arugula and tomato-kimchi soup is a dish I could have enjoyed as an entrée. The tomato kimchi "soup" is a magnificent sauce with compelling flavors and provides the ideal base for the rice flour "gnocchi." I loved the uniquely chewy texture of the gnocchi that reminded me of mochi, a rice-based dessert popular in Japanese cuisine. Our group consensus made this dish a winner and eye appealing as well!
R: Plain tofu is bland to the max and rarely exciting to eat. But I was actually surprised that I really liked the Soft Tofu with Brussels Sprouts, pickled garlic ponzu, lime cured onion, and popcorn. Chef Nick knows how to make tofu zing. He's a master of creating sauces that light up with flavor, yet feel light and well balanced.
Z: Our friend, Chuck, said it was hard to define the individual flavors in the dish because the ingredients were so masterfully blended. We agreed and found the same quality throughout the meal. We also appreciated that after a couple of saucy courses, the servers brought clean plates.
R: Within minutes, another delicious dish was delivered to our table. The Kale Cavatelli is a mouth-watering savory creation that looks like spring just blossomed in a bowl. The colorful stew sports a medley of butternut squash, black trumpet mushrooms, pear, and tom yum gravy. This pleasing light stew features chewy, pastel green pasta made from rice flour.
Z: The dish is blessed with some of my favorite veggies that included sweet corn, Delicata squash slices, boiled peanuts, and butternut squash in a light sauce that hinted of coconut milk. We loved the wildly varying textures!
R: The pièce de résistance of our meal was the Shredded Cabbage Pancake with braised eggplant and chili hoisin. If this entrée were a woman, I'd say she was well stacked, because it was so beautifully layered.
Z: If this were a woman, I'd really be jealous--such beauty! Resting on a sable-brown pool of well-prepared sauce is the thin, giant-size, feather-light pancake made from chia seeds. Two large, thick, tender slices of eggplant are layered over the pancake and are topped with three large leaves of crisp romaine, pickled red onions, and a fluff of lacy greens.
R: If there were nothing else to eat but this shredded cabbage dish, I would be the happiest diner in the world! Yes, it really was that good. While each component of this creation was wonderful by itself, it was the perfectly conceived hoisin-infused sauce that bonded the ingredients and made this a standout.
Z: We couldn't conclude our Erven dining adventure without dessert. If we did, we would have wondered what divine creation we missed. So we ordered the Chocolate Liquid Donut with frozen peanut butter brittle, ganache, huckleberries and a potato chip on top.
R: No regrets. This was a donut unlike any other, and you won't find this delight in a donut shop. While it looks like a familiar donut sitting on a bed of deep purple huckleberries, it amazed us with a delicious surprise once we cut into it. Out poured a rich chocolate sauce to mop up with the crispy edged donut coated in crushed potato chips.
Z: The little scoop of peanut butter ice cream with a potato chip standing tall was the ideal finishing flair and was just enough for the three of us to enjoy a couple of sweet bites. Throughout our meal, several of the staff came to the tables to welcome the diners and ask if the meal was satisfactory. One of the staff was Chef Eric Greenspan, owner of Maré Restaurant on the corner and Chef Nick's partner.
R: On our second visit the following week we had just as much fun exploring other dishes on the menu because we brought our friends Scott and Craig, both chefs visiting from San Francisco. While we pondered the menu, Sandy, our server, brought us an amuse-bouche of cornnuts roasted in mole.
Z: Our visitors, who love to eat, devoured Chef Nick's dishes with the enthusiasm of children in Disneyland. The Savory Donut Holes, Black Garlic-Chickpea Fritters, Sunchokes, and Purple Sweet Potato Rice Rolls were gone in moments. I barely had time to jot down our choices!
R: The next course, the Sharables, included the Onion Bread Pudding, Falafel, Korean Gnocchi, and Roasted Carrots. We gave thumbs up to Chef Nick, who displays a sincere passion for vegetable creations with flair.
Z: We were thrilled that our visitors, who are not vegan, found it surprising that vegetables could taste so vibrant and exciting. They dined rapidly and with such enthusiasm it made the experience memorable. Our favorite Principal was Spaghetti with Baby Shiitake Mushrooms, brassicas, and yeast broth.
R: While each of the dishes appear complex to the diner's eye, Chef Nick views his innovative creations the simplest he'd ever prepared. Yet, because the chef no longer relies on animal-based ingredients like butter, cream, and eggs common to most chefs, he revels in the challenge to make each dish stand apart.
Z: Scott and Craig applied their same lively zest for the dessert course that had to include the sensational Liquid Chocolate Donut. We also ordered S'mores Ice Cream Sandwiches with aquafaba marshmallow sauce. Our chef guests came away extremely happy and full of new ideas to share with their students.
R: We know others share our positive experience. We suggest you come with a good appetite, because the dishes are so tasty you'll want to order everything on the menu! Wine and beer lovers will have excellent choices, and coffee aficionados can enjoy regular or decaf as well as espresso, cappuccino, latte, or macchiato.
R: Prices are moderate, and patrons get excellent value for their dollars. Snackables are $5 to $6. Shareables range from $11 to $14. Principals are $15 to $21. On the daytime menu Salads are $4 to $8 depending on size and selection. Sandwiches range from $7 to $9. Soups $5 to $8 depending on bowl size. Street parking in Santa Monica is hard to find, but there is a nighttime valet on 5th and Santa Monica Blvd as well as parking garages throughout the business district.
Reviewed January 2017