In those papusa-laden, chorizo-packed corridors of the Mission, finding a gorgeous kale salad feels a bit like spotting a rare ibis in a strip mall. In a way, Green Heart Foods is like an exotic bird: elegant, uncommon and a little bit enchanting. The new cafe is the tiny, public-facing offspring of a larger catering operation by the same name, helmed by chef-turned-holistic-nutritionist Lisa Chatham.
The project aims, at its heart, to pull us (and the tech companies it caters to) away from the standard American diet (SAD). The strategy? Simple. Cooking slowly and tasting good.
Judging by scant sales, I suppose the cafe wasn’t meant to make money. It was meant as a mouthpiece for a movement, a pretty showcase of what lovely, healthy food looks like. It’s attractive enough to feel like an insidious scheme — offering mounds of blindingly pretty greens to bait us away from chicken wings and pizza lunches, to snatch us from the cold, hard grip of quick and thoughtless eating. In a word, to save us. Happily, that’s a tasty affair.
Breakfast at the cafe is rich with superfoods and snacky vegan bits. Goji berries and maple syrup brighten up a coconut chia seed pudding, passing as a kind of post-yoga snack, named Superhero Breakfast.
The Green Heart Smoothie — including blueberries, cashews, coconut butter, Vitamineral Green powder, cacao and maca — looks like pond sludge but tastes better and (probably) does unspeakably good things for your body.
On the lunch side, things are cozier.
The menu’s rhythm is consistent: one daily vegan muffin, frittata, soup, three salads, and a weekly blue plate.
There is ample skill in the kitchen, and recipes are bold in their simplicity. My frittata was standard, peppered with spinach and paper-thin coins of zucchini, but the weekly blue plate — plump, braised chicken thighs wrapped in a sweet, warm helping of mashed butternut squash and sage — triumphed quietly. The chicken, expertly braised, fell away from itself in a cloud of white wine-scented steam.
The avocado toast uncovers refreshing restraint and textural discipline. Smeared on housemade seedy bread and dressed up with black sesame and astringent red onions, it’s a perfect stack.
The salads are apt displays of Chatham’s culinary sensibility and her healthful priorities. Simple renditions find tender leaves of kale slicked with a bright, nutty olive oil, tossed with delicata squash and candied walnuts.
Then, we have the farro — the salad that colonized my entire memory of the food here. Wrinkled, roasted pears are a brilliantly soft acid to counter rich goat cheese, mild arugula, warm toasted hazelnuts and toothsome grain. Adding a sensible mix of oils (olive, truffle) and some sherry vinegar makes for an Elysian dish. The whole thing quickly reminded me how predictably, embarrassingly, a deftly deployed truffle can shatter my senses.
Green Heart Foods exudes positive feelings, in part because everyone who works here seems buoyant, healthy. Swarthy. Happy, even. I don’t want to buy in, but resistance is futile. Whatever the local, organic version of Kool-Aid is, I want to drink it.
That Green Heart Foods makes beautiful food is important. We don’t get to arrive at this intersection often, where nutrition and superb culinary prowess land in the same conversation. And while some of us have time to heed Michael Pollan’s directive to get back into the kitchen, workaholic “brogrammers” and others can’t necessarily do that. It warms my heart, now, that someone is feeding them.
Green Heart Foods
Location: 3321 20th St. (at Folsom Street), S.F.
Contact: (415) 800-8910, www.greanheartfoods.com
Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Friday
Price range: $3 to $13
Recommended dishes: Avocado toast ($3), Green Heart smoothie ($9), Superhero Breakfast ($8)
Credit cards: All major