Despite the popularity of vegetarianism, the strictly vegetarian restaurant hasn't carved out a large niche for itself on the American dining scene. The Sacramento area once had at least four vegetarian restaurants, but most have disappeared. The reason is twofold: They were co-opted by mainstream restaurants that recognized the appeal of vegetarianism and began to add more meatless options to their menus. Secondly, ethnic restaurants have risen in popularity, many of which offer several vegetarian dishes.
Thus, I'm surprised to learn of an earnestly artful new vegetarian restaurant in the old Gold Rush mining camp of Murphys, Calaveras County. It's called Mineral, and it occupies the former Main Street site of the old and casual burger joint Pick 'N Shovel.
The owners are Steven Rinauro and Maya Radisich. Over the past 17 years he's put in stints with several upscale restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles, but moved to the foothills to be closer to family. Radisich grew up in Murphys, moved to San Francisco to study art, got involved in managing a coffee company, then returned home first to open a bakery and now to run Mineral.
They recognize that a vegetarian restaurant in cattle country is a high-risk venture, so they're promoting not so much the meatless aspect as the novel artistry of Rinauro's cooking. The Murphys area is short on ethnic restaurants, notes Radisich, so Mineral is a way to introduce residents and visitors to combinations of flavors, textures and the like that they might expect to find at Asian, Latin and other specialty restaurants.
Their menus are indeed remarkably inventive, including dishes like a tostada salad with lime wontons, candied lotus root and a creamy vinaigrette with miso and Mexican vanilla; cocoa-crusted seitan with a Meyer-lemon fondue and guajillo-chile vinaigrette; and Thai vegetable dumplings with a lemongrass and miso broth and sweet wine-pickled cabbage.
Check out their Web site, then plan a drive into the foothills for what looks to be not only an exposure to vegetarian eating but an unusually original and modern style of cookery. Mineral is open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, dinner 5-9 p.m. Thursday through Monday. Phone: (209) 728-9743.