“I’ll come back and take your drink order whenever you’re ready,” the waitress informs us in a voice so soft and soothing that I feel like I’m about to get a massage.
At Cafe Sunflower in Buckhead, the lighting is dim, the colorful walls glow softly and gigantic paper lanterns hang from the ceiling like mood-altering orbs. I feel so like I’ve walked through a wormhole into 1978, and I have to say I like the feeling.
Cafe Sunflower has only been around since 1994, yet it evokes an earlier age of vegetarianism — one that suggested meatlessness is the first step on a path to enlightenment. It makes you think you can sit purposefully, look deep into your soul and find the powerful energy emanating from a chakra that whispers, “Try the zucchini and tempeh burrito.”
The food tastes of an earlier era, as well. On the one hand, it has nothing in common with the exciting, fresh, locavore-tastic cooking happening at Dynamic Dish in the Old Fourth Ward. On the other hand, it also stays clear of raw food — that new movement that has people gobbling chalky sprouted-pea hummus that tastes like Milk of Magnesia but supposedly does wonders for your immune system.
No, the menu as this branch of Cafe Sunflower (the Sandy Springs branch is different) reads like a facile and slightly corny romp as it jumps from Chinese stir frys to Mexican tostadas, from Jamaican plantains to Caprese sandwiches, to garden-variety hippie chow such as veggie loaf.
But you know what? That’s cool. It all kind of hits the spot.
People tend to judge food in terms of taste and texture alone. I would venture that the weight of a dish is just as important. Think about how a big full-meal salad fills your stomach to the stretching point but leaves your mind hungry. Not good weight. But then a cheese fondue extravaganza seems the picture of satisfaction as it slides down your gullet. Yet you soon feel like you’ve swallowed a counterweight and are in danger of losing your buoyancy.
Now consider the eggplant lasagna ($12), pictured above. No noodles were harmed in this making of this substantive slab, though a few grains of orzo (that small rice-shaped pasta) were mixed with a crumbled tofu “ricotta for the bottom layer. But above that are striations of meaty portobello mushroom, slick roasted red pepper and gushy eggplant. On the top: one of those old-school marinara sauces with that back flavor of dried basil. It is firm and filling, and you feel good devouring the entire brick and then turning your attention to sweet-dressed salad on the side for dessert.
This tostada napoleon ($10), with corn-tortilla-separated layers of chili, corn, brown rice and black beans offers the kind of quasi-Mexican cooking that was popular before most people could tolerate spice. So, of course, the beans scream with cumin and the (ahem) salsa is on the sweet side. Do I love it? No. Can I dig it? Oh, yeah.
These entrees are quite substantive and on the expensive side, so you don’t really need a starter. That said, consider an order crispy okra in “Mae Poly” sauce ($6) for the table.
The sauce is a sweet chili with no bite whatsoever, the whole okra do not emerge crisp in the slightest, and the breading tastes like Italian-seasoned Progresso crumbs — a flavor I haven’t thought about in years. But they are bright, bursty, strangely delectable things to eat. Plus, you’ve got to applaud any restaurant that can turn fried okra into hippie chow.
Are there any other non-vegetarians out there who like vegetarian food as well as I do?