Walnut Creek has just the thing for diners looking to simplify.
Photography by Joe Budd
Sometimes, a restaurant opens that feels as if its moment has come. Wander past the baskets of fresh fruit in the entryway of Lettuce, and you may start to get the idea that Bahman Tehrani’s new restaurant is one of those. The restaurant, with its produce on display, its white walls, and its bright yellow accents, feels shiny and new—a fresh breeze in an era that seems to call out for change.
A color scheme that feels like a new day dawning makes a perfect backdrop for a restaurant that serves simple, elemental food—namely, salads, sandwiches, and soup. Now, if the food weren’t good, the greengrocer decor would flop, despite the prominently displayed designer lettuces and spinach where you place your order, the immense layout of other colorful ingredients, and the attractive jars of house-made lemonade and passionfruit black tea.
But, one taste of the minestrone soup, and you’re reminded of why simple is sometimes best. Not like the simple you settle for when you want a cheap lunch. Or when you’re feeling guilty about eating a whole bag of cheese doodles. Best. Wholesome, healthy, with the flavor of homemade. The minestrone at Lettuce, made with a chicken stock, brims with beautiful vegetables: cabbage, chickpeas, cannellini beans, tomatoes, green and red peppers, and zucchini. There’s an alchemy here. Even a person who insists on the big hunk o’ protein with every meal could realize that, no, this soup and its accompanying Acme roll make a deeply satisfying lunch.
Tehrani seems an unlikely disciple of such stripped-down, healthy eating. Around these parts, he’s known as the former owner of Basil Leaf Café in Danville and Lafayette, and Baci in Pleasanton—restaurants that, with their country café looks and standard Italian dishes, were anything but New Age. But, standing behind the register at his sleek salad bar, the white-haired Tehrani, clad in a white chef’s coat, could be playing the role of the good doctor, dispensing wheatgrass juice to his followers.
Tehrani points out that his former restaurants all offered soup and salad, “and it always went well.” He says he makes the soups and created the salad recipes at Lettuce. “That’s all my recipes,” he says. “I have owned restaurants for years, and throughout that journey, you find out what goes with what.”
Tehrani says he uses as much organic produce as he can. “If I can get organic, I will. But, if it’s not available, we have to go with conventional.” He says he orders much of his produce from a San Francisco distributor called GreenLeaf and that he personally hits the Danville farmers market on Saturdays, and the Walnut Creek one on Sundays. All of his breads, he says, are made by Acme, which uses only organic flour.
Good ingredients don’t necessarily add up to great food, but Tehrani has more going for him than his minestrone. The butternut squash soup is remarkable for its complex flavor. Many soups made with squash, carrots, or pumpkin are sweet, period. This rendition has a dark depth from the roasting of the squash, its sweetness is multilayered because of the honey, and it has a little spice and nicely contrasting bright notes from the tart green apple that is sautéed and then pureed with the squash. A rustic corn chowder is also more layered and less sweet than many versions. Salads are fresh and varied—there are 16 on the menu—and the wide variety of dressings is interesting, if not the most delectable ever. A sandwich called the SFO blew us away with its juicy grilled chicken, perfectly ripe avocado, tomato, sprouts, provolone, and mayo—on a hearty slice of Acme slab bread.
Tehrani’s got a restaurant business model whose moment may have arrived. One of the ways he keeps the meal prices at less than $11 or $12 is there’s little service and therefore little tipping. Customers order at the counter and are handed their food as they pay at the register. One busser clears and cleans the tables, and keeps customers’ water glasses filled, but otherwise, says Tehrani, customers “can walk around the restaurant and get what they want, just like at home.”
As the restaurant evolves, Tehrani plans to change the menu, adding desserts and coffee. On our visits, only brownies with a foam-rubber texture and strangely cakey cookies were available. Tehrani says he will also start to incorporate more seasonal ingredients into the salads and sandwiches, such as blood oranges or pomegranates—and will put a board outside to advertise those seasonal specials.
Much of this will have to wait, though, Tehrani says, until he gets his brand-new concept on solid footing. “There’s a lot of variety I can implement in there, but it’s too young to do any of that now,” he says. “It’s like a newborn baby.”CONTACT: 1632 Locust St., Walnut Creek, (925) 933-5600.
HOURS: Lunch and dinner daily.
PRICE: Salads $7.95–$11.95, sandwiches $8.95–$9.95, soups $3.95–$6.95.
ALCOHOL: None. ■
at a glance
What makes it special: Fresh, beautiful ingredients combined in delicious ways.
The Space: Bright and spare, with small metal tables and a wood floor.
When to go: For lunch or supper.
What to Order: The minestrone soup, the farmers or the big cobb salad, the SFO or BLT sandwich.
Bonus: Tehrani’s trademark water pitchers are garnished with fresh fruit and mint or cucumber and mint, which subtly flavors the water.