Plants on the Plate

Words by Alissa Greenberg

Photos by Paulette Phlipot

Words by Alissa Greenberg

Among Bob Trahan’s childhood memories, one stands out: the care his grandfather put into their French fry-making ritual, while Bob’s mother took nursing classes. His grandfather “had these particulars about how he did it,” Bob remembers. The fries always had to be crinkle-cut, since that would give them the best crispy edge. The oil had to be reused a few times to get the best taste. And the French fries had to be drained on top of a paper bag. “It was really basic,” Bob remembers of the recipe. But those fries made a deep impression and taught him an important lesson, one that’s carried over into his professional life: details matter.

Tonight, a long way from French fries, Bob is enjoying the fruits of a very different project. Twelvemonth, his newly-opened vegan restaurant, is already drawing rave reviews in downtown Burlingame. Waiters carry platters of sweet-spicy radish cakes and rich mock-egg custard chawanmushi from a menu Bob helped design to guests seated at thoughtfully selected hand-stitched leather banquettes.

After three years of planning and preparation, Bob hopes Twelvemonth can fill what he sees as a gap in the Peninsula food scene: a special occasion spot offering deeply-sustainable dining. He’s already convinced the building’s owners that he has the vision, determination, conviction and skills to deliver. Now he just needs Peninsula diners to agree.

In the first part of his professional life, Bob used his eye for detail in tech, most notably as a high-level manager at Facebook. But finding the work to be misaligned with his values, he quit to attend culinary school, working as a line cook and running a bakery out of his house, while keeping an eye out for an opportunity to open his own place. When long-beloved Steelhead Brewery walked away from its space in downtown Burlingame in the first weeks of the 2020 lockdown, he jumped at the chance to claim it, sending owner Patricia Sabatini a handwritten letter detailing his vision and presenting a social-distanced pitch to her and her kids in their backyard.

Part of that vision: an entirely plant-based restaurant focused on seasonal, local dishes (a philosophy that gives Twelvemonth its distinctive name). For a long time, Bob’s overriding impression had been that plant-based cooking meant bland rabbit food, but culinary school helped him see that it might be possible to create a restaurant where the plants are “incidental to your experience.” His wife, a longtime animal lover, served as a major inspiration for the project. (He once went vegan for a month as a Mother’s Day present to her.) Another, his growing eco-anxiety. “One of the best things we can do as a consumer is eat more plants,” he says.

The sustainability of Twelvemonth extends to the building itself, a former firehouse with vaulted ceilings that took three years of renovations and design to get ready for opening. With rainwater catchment tanks, solar panels on the roof and a relationship with a farm that will provide custom-grown herbs in return for kitchen-scrap compost in the works, Bob expects the restaurant will be certified LEED platinum. As for atmosphere, Twelvemonth is an eclectic mix of Las Vegas luxe and airy mountain cabin.

Rough-hewn wood, brushed brass, and funky fixtures combine to create an aesthetic that Bob refers to as part “agrarian farmhouse,” part “luxury pick-up truck.” (His favorite: a chandelier made of repurposed hospital operating room lights.)

Though the menu is still evolving, it already presents a panoply of plant-based possibilities. The radish cake, a hit with diners so far, elegantly melds the chew of a well-cooked rice cake with salty, sweet and spicy homemade chili crisp. Generous greens provide body to a rich bean stew. A vivid purple charred cabbage salad is satisfyingly tangy with a smoky backing and endowed with a unique texture that melds the softer cabbage with an allium crunch. Not to be missed on the side: house-made Parker House rolls—pillowy and a little sweet.

To drink, diners love the Shasta Daisy, a citrusy take on a margarita, which departs with a touch of salt, vanilla and cinnamon at the back of the throat. For dessert, there are beignets cooked to order or fried cookie dough, a stroke of sweet genius that’s soft inside, chewy and crispy-warm outside—a kind of molten cookie-donut.

In the future, Bob hopes to be less involved in the “each blade of grass way,” focusing more on big-picture menu planning or new projects. There’s a farm-to-table program he’s trying to get off the ground, connecting with no-till farms and perfecting the composting program—he jokes it’s intensive enough to be referred to as “soil to spoon.” And he’s excited to find ways to incorporate his tech expertise. One possible idea: streaming kitchen and bakery service and using the footage on TikTok.

For now, though, he’s staying busy in the trenches. He’s picked out many of the 57 types of lightbulbs needed to brighten Twelvemonth’s various quirky dining areas, pitched in on choosing the jewel-colored liquor bottles that line the decorative shelves above the bar and filled in as needed at the bakery.

He’s even volunteered to re-wire the brushed-brass lamps, whose cords arrived too long for his liking. Why not? He enjoys working with his hands.
“It’s not that I couldn’t delegate it, but …”

Bob makes a “why bother” shrug and leaves to toss a sports coat over his polo shirt before the dinner rush. Come tomorrow, he’ll be back here early to assemble shelves in the new storage area.