Valley High

The garden burger represents one of the rare local veggie patties made in house - with carrots, onions, mushrooms, beans, brown rice and flax.

Limited and irregular hours of operation, uncompelling ambiance and my low expectations for vegetarian cuisine have kept Julia’s low on my list since its 2011 opening. That was until I met a guy named Buddy Comfort, one of the four musicians that bring songs to Julia’s Monday through Thursday. He told me about the food, the music and all the cool changes since chef and mega-hands-on operator Anthony Gerbino took full control five months ago. He’s done a ton of upgrades and made the place a seven-days-a-week dinner spot, with brunch weekends.

We timed our first visit to be on a Thursday, Comfort’s usual night. As we entered the nearly full, 25-seat room, we were greeted with “Hi folks” by a young man in the corner, acoustic guitar slung across his body. It was Vincent Randazzo, the usual Monday night minstrel, filling in. His voice and guitar were as warm as the upgraded interior, with its wood floors, soothing powder blue ceiling and pale green walls, antique-looking hutch exhibiting the wine selection, musical instruments like a didgeridoo, ukulele, drum and tambourine on top. On the walls hang a guitar, a banjo and a banjolin. Also adding rustic warmth to the place are the solid pine table tops, planed, sanded, stained and polished by Gerbino with the help of his prep cook Manprem Kaur, who also assisted with the renovation. She’s also in charge this summer of harvesting the produce and eggs from the 5-acre farm in Watsonville where Gerbino lives. Local and seasonal is the name of the game.

For starters we ordered the two soups that were offered, an Italian lentil and an Indian lentil ($3/cup; $5.50/bowl). Both were chock full of firm, unmushy, vegetables in a richly spiced and aromatic veggie broth, accented by enough lentils to add another layer of taste and texture. Looking at the six rice bowls, I was having trouble deciding between the garlic roasted vegetables ($12.25) – carrots, cauliflower, kambocha squash, butternut squash, yam and zucchini with brown rice and braised spinach – or the yellow coconut curry ($14). After the server told me that the sweet-and-mild curry included those same veggies plus fresh apples and pears, that’s what I chose. What I found remarkable was its combination of sweet and savory, different textures ranging from firm to soft, all contrasted by the meatiness and nutty flavor of the brown rice. Chef Gerbino is not stingy with his portions either.

The wife chose the ravioli ($16) with mushrooms and a red wine reduction. A fan of creamier sauces, she found the reduction strong. But she liked the tender pillows of pasta made at Bigoli Fresh Pasta in Sand City and filled with seitan, a protein dense wheat product made by Sweet Earth Natural Foods of Moss Landing.

We returned for Saturday brunch. Our ritual of sharing sweet and savory was made easy by the cinnamon-caramel French toast ($9.50) and gluten-free quiche Lorraine ($7). Often the egg filling in a quiche is a bit firm and dry, more like a frittata. This one was creamy, moist and endowed with savory spinach, gruyere cheese and grilled mushrooms. The two thick slices of lightly browned raisin brioche French toast with house caramel completed an extremely satisfying meal.

Our final visit was to try the garden burger ($8.50) and one of the eight pizzas. But which? There’s a simple one like the Margherita ($13.50), then there’s Julia’s ($14), loaded with roasted vegetables, mozzarella, mushrooms and a pesto/ tomato blend. We went with a mushroom, sage, garlic and mozzarella ($13). This was so good – crispy crust, slightly caramelized mozzarrella, plump, juicy, thick-cut mushrooms on top – I couldn’t stop, especially accompanied by the drinkable and affordable house red, the Alamos Malbec ($5). Good pours as well. I had two. The house white by the glass is the Mezzacorona Pinot Grigio ($5). By the bottle there are five reds and four whites ranging from $20 to $25 – from California, Italy, Spain and Argentina. Four beers and one cider are $4 (Sierra, 805, Heineken, Guinness and Crispin hard cider).

The garden burger is made in house with carrots, onions, mushrooms, mixed beans, brown rice, oats and flax meal – no bread crumbs and all gluten free (except the bun). We had it with caramelized red onion and cheddar ($9.25); it was tender yet firm and had plenty of sweet and flavor. Adding another dimension was the topping of thinly sliced heirloom tomato, cucumber, lettuce and vegan red pepper aioli. It was unwieldy with all that stuff so I ended up knife and forking it.

I get the sense Gerbino, 28, is reaching the top of his game. Growing up in a joyfully foodie family where everyone cooked, his culinary skills are part of who he is, he explains. He adds business has tripled since he got full control of the place in January.

I see why. Even if the food had been less than excellent, I’d still want to hang out there just for the good vibe of the place. It feels a lot like home; or a good place to be when you don’t want to be home. Better yet the food’s flavorful, generously portioned and very satisfying too.

JULIA’S VEGETARIAN RESTAURANT 1180 Forest Ave., Pacific Grove. 5pm-close nightly. 11am-2:30pm Sat-Sun. 656-9533, www.juliasofpacificgrove.com

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