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Lunch at Google HQ is as Insanely Awesome as You Thought

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[Photographs: Christophe Wu]

When you think of "Google," all sorts of images pop into mind. Perhaps your email address. Maybe the term you just used in place of "search." Possibly you just took part in a "chat" or "hung out" with a friend or needed directions on a map. Google is present everywhere.

And yet here in the heart of Silicon Valley, at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, you often hear "Google" referred to as something on an incredibly local scale, right down to lunch hour. But forget sloppy cafeteria fare. The cafés on the Google campus serve some of the best food in the Valley—if you know how to get it.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit Google as a diner. Despite the enormous amount of requests the company receives for its cafes to open to the public (there is an In N Out Burger nearby where you can dine instead in the area), we non-Googlers must be invited by the employees to enjoy a meal here. (And yes, employees enjoy free meals.)

Googlers take their meals in what are referred to as cafés, not cafeterias or dining halls. The company won't give an official figure, but estimates there are around 30 different places for employees to dine at the Mountain View campus. When I talked with employees about their café favorites, they would respond about where you go for birthdays, where you go if the weather's nice, where you go for a calming lunch alone on a busy Monday, or amazing sushi place. At Google, the options are seemingly endless.

For lunch, I was joined by Helen Wechsler, the regional food services manager for the Mountain View campus, and Helene York, the director of purchasing strategy for Bon Appetit, the nationwide catering company that works with Google chefs. Clearly, there's a special bond between Google and Bon Appetit. Bon Appetit ran the dining services for my alma mater, and while the food certainly was above average for college, it paled in comparison to what I experienced on Google's campus.

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Root's squash-corn-pecan dumplings

In the typical serious eater fashion, we had a lunch doubleheader at two of Google's cafes: Root and Baadal.

If there's a café that represents Google's core dining philosophies best it would be Root —named both for the roots of cuisines and also roots themselves, which here, means more than just turnips and beets.

I've always imagined kale's almost super-natural nutritional attributes to be the food symbol of Google, a company that has a gift for making the impossibly ambitious seem realistic. At Root, headed by chef Hillary Bergh, kale is wonderfully on display as the colorful base for Baia Nicchia squash, corn, and pecan dumplings. Their flavor blended sweetness with earth, with a surprising floral note from the addition of lavender. This was as autumnal as it gets without foliage.

My visit coincided with Google's "pecan month," fitting for a company that loves themes (check out the daily changing doodles on their homepage for proof). Those dumplings included pecans. So did the lavender pecan cornbread with honey from the company's beehives. The highlight of a beautiful rockfish dish was its crust, a mixture of textures and nutty elements from pecans, walnuts, and almond meal.

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Rockfish with pecans

The fish came from just off the coast of Half Moon Bay, as fresh as it gets in these parts outside of Dungeness crab. In addition to composting, growing produce in gardens, and making staples like bread and honey, Google and Bon Appetit follow the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch carefully. You won't be finding bluefin tuna or farmed Atlantic salmon here.

For dessert, in lieu of pecan pie, there were pecan bars—light and borderline savory, with just a faint touch of maple, and garbanzo flour to render these gluten-free. Rest assured, you won't fall into a dessert-induced sugar rush before the 2 p.m. meeting.

The two primary take-aways I had from lunch at Root was the emphasis on portion sizes and the emphasis on productivity. This isn't about lavish lunches leading to midafternoon siestas. You do serve yourself at Root, but the plates are so small you can't fit a whole buffet's worth. One strategy involves positioning all the proteins on one side of the room, so you load up on salad bar offerings first. A company that thrives on its innovative energy needs its employees to be buzzing, not leaving lunch feeling overstuffed and sluggish.

For snack time, the buildings have many "micro-kitchens" full of fruits, edamame snacks, banana chips, and little squares of Tcho dark chocolate from the small batch San Francisco chocolatier. A professional barista is on hand for espresso needs.

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But Google is always open to suggestions. Want to request a new Indian café or say that you're tired of kohlrabi and pumpkin seeds? Employees can, using an internal system called "Foodback" to provide feedback and suggestions. One result of feedback was Baadal.

As Google's newest and possibly most ambitious concept, Baadal is an entirely different experience. First of all, it's a sit-down restaurant and reservations are highly recommended. The name is Hindi for "cloud." Did you forget for a moment that this is Silicon Valley?

Baadal's chef is Irfan Dama, formerly a private chef who focused on Indian home cooking and the country's many regional cuisines. Over the course of my animated conversation with Dama about the intricacies of Indian cookery, it didn't surprise me to learn that he's a very popular cooking personality on YouTube (another Google brand).

The dining room at Baadal truly feels like a bustling restaurant— the lush draperies and dark orange-hued booths could fit right in in SoHo. I felt like I should've dressed up, until I saw the programmers in their t-shirts in the booth next door. Trolleys are pushed about, hawking superb chai and equally excellent rose or mango lassis. The chai has become a sensation around Google, and I loved its distinct cardamom-laced allure.

Lunch is served thali-style as stews and curries to be eaten with the starches, raita, and chutneys. Spice no doubt has to be dialed down for less adventurous palates, but is not forgotten. Onions or garlic aren't allowed. Hey, at least the guy at the cubicle next to you won't have bad breath after lunch.

Editor's note: We heard from chef Dama a few days after the original publication of this article with a quick correction: "Baadal features one dish on the menu every day prepared without onion and garlic, labeled as 'Brahmin.' This has been requested by many [employees], who wish to adhere to diets defined by the principle of Ayurvedic Sattvic cuisine." He adds that rest of the dishes don't have to be onion and garlic-free, though sometimes they are.

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Thali platter

The meal begins with brittle pappadam and two chutneys (a too tame Parsi eggplant and a fiery lime pickle), but the real "oohs" and "ahhs" begin when the grand thali platter is presented. It's a majestic scene. The highlights for me were the daal saagwala from Northern India, a mix of soft kale, spinach, and mustard greens, tossed with three types of beans and lentils in a broth singing with distinct cumin notes and a pleasant cilantro flourish. The aloo gobi dahiwale was terrific, too. A little butter and cream sneaks in to enhance this spread of potato and cauliflower with a nice dose of turmeric and green chili. It seemed like an intriguing brandade with no fishy taste. A little dab of lime pickle chutney went perfectly on top.

I could fill up on the accompaniments to the thali and be perfectly happy, too. Dama spent days perfecting the Baadal rice, a mix of Sona Masoori rice, brown rice, and Bhutanese red rice that serves as a complex platform for the dishes. The raita is made with seasonal ingredients, like persimmon. And a new treat on-demand is a creamy rice dish called thayyir saadam, similar to a rice pudding made with unsweetened yogurt and curry spices in lieu of cinnamon.

To fend off sluggish employee afternoons, Chef Irfan resists the urge to use too much of the key ingredient in much of India's cooking: ghee (clarified butter), except on Fridays. Fridays are free for all days, often with different versions of biriyani.

Because of the limited space inside Baadal and the fact that you can't have a sit down meal for every lunch every day, Baadal also has a food truck outside called Bijali ("lightning"). Like popular food trucks nationwide, the lines are lengthy.

One of the few downsides for chefs working at the Google campus is that since they can only use locally-sourced produce, there's a lack of color on the fruit plates. Without pineapple, there's no vibrant yellow on display. Then the chefs take a deep breath and ask, why not start hydroponic pineapple farms right here in the Silicon Valley? Has the idea ever been thought about before? I'm not sure. I'll Google it.

About the author: Trevor Felch is a Bay Area based food & drink writer for the SF Weekly. Charm him with Oregon Pinot Noir and nutella crêpes. Follow him @TrevorFelch and visit his blog Trev's Bistro.

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