Mineral Restaurant, Murphys, California

Over the years, we have found vegetarian restaurants in some wacky/unexpected places, but Mineral Restaurant ranks up there as one of our most surprising discoveries. Mineral Restaurant is a high end vegetarian restaurant designed to compete with other five-star Northern California vegetarian favorites such as Greens, Millennium and The Ravens. But instead of being located in a major metropolis like San Francisco or an eco-friendly upscale tourist town like Mendocino, Mineral is off the beaten track in downtown Murphys, a lovely but tiny town in the bucolic Gold Country about an hour from Stockton. How in the world can this small community support a vegetarian restaurant, let alone one charging top-of-the-line prices?

Mineral seems to be doing just fine, thank you very much. It celebrated its 1 year anniversary, which is probably 11 months longer than anyone expected, and every seat filled on a Friday night in late October (so make reservations). Then again, the restaurant only seats 20 (including the bar but excluding the outdoor patio). But they run a lean operation, with a staff of two—the owner-server and the owner-chef. So between low labor costs, high prices and filling to capacity on the weekends, perhaps the economics work out OK.

Mineral uses big plates to serve small portions. I suspect many meat eaters laugh when their plates arrive; this visual presentation may psychologically reinforce that they are going to go home hungry. But the three course tasting menu (which is what everyone orders) was plenty of food. At the end, we were too stuffed to contemplate dessert.

Although the restaurant isn’t fully vegan, the restaurant is an excellent choice for a vegan looking for a special meal.

Because Mineral’s menu changes constantly, I’m not going to critique each dish. Instead, to generalize the experience, most dishes had multiple and complex flavors, of which one was typically a little sweet. My wife absolutely loved the food, and she ranks it among the best she’s ever had. I was less enthusiastic. I thought the food was good but overly complicated and expensive–including the wine tasting, we ended up spending about $60/person. I would be just as happy spending $15/person at a much lower-frills but still tasty restaurant like Udupi Palace or Native Foods.

Although I’m not sure about the value proposition, I enthusiastically recommend that you check out Mineral if you’re willing to spend top dollar for a top quality culinary experience. It’s certainly competitive with Millennium as one of the best vegetarian restaurants in Northern California (I think Greens is overrated and isn’t close to either). Better yet, enjoy a weekend as a tourist in Murphys. There is plenty to do, see and eat. As an added bonus, come back to Mineral a second time for lunch. Lisa and I both thought their “X-burger” made for an outstanding and affordable lunch.

UPDATE MAY 2008: Perhaps the economics weren’t so great after all. Mineral has rechristened itself as the “Mineral Wine Bar and Kitchen’ with a revamped, noticeably cheaper and far less vegan-friendly (but still vegetarian) menu.