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30 Restaurants in 30 Days: Cafe Sunflower (Buckhead)

Eggplant lasagna

Eggplant lasagna

“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.

photo-12

Tostada Napoleon

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.

Crispy okra

Crispy okra

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?

26 comments Add your comment

top chef fanatic

November 6th, 2009
8:21 am

not a big vegetarian fan …although i did eat at the one in sandy springs before, And discovered it very pricey and wondered why just for vegetables. I guess its a haven for vegetarians and they appreciate it more. After seeing the elimination challenge on top chef i noticed it takes a special chef to do this cuisine.

have a blessed day:)

Madge

November 6th, 2009
9:07 am

I’m with you – a non-vegetarian that really enjoys vegetarian food. I have an old hippie friend that loves to take me to Sunflower Cafe on occasion, and I can always find something fun to try. Last night I had the pleasure of dining at Woodfire Grill and my favorite dishes were the vegetarian ones, especially the oyster mushrooms and the roasted beets. A world of yum!

Puhleease

November 6th, 2009
10:30 am

Thank you John for doing food reviews without having to be snobish and over the top drama about the locations you visit……Unlike another AJC food person…..

Andres

November 6th, 2009
10:42 am

I absolutely love Cafe Sunflower though I am not a vegetarian. I am struggling to find great vegetarian places around town. Any recommendations (ITP), especially for dinner? Ria’s Bluebird is fantastic, but they are not open for dinner :(

anonymous coward

November 6th, 2009
10:43 am

I’ve always appreciated Cafe Sunflower in Buckhead and even in Sandy Springs for their food. I’ve eaten there on and off since they opened. Yes, I’m willing to pay a little more for good vegetarian fare when the service is good, the dishes are tasty and well done and the owners are a delight.

bbb

November 6th, 2009
11:08 am

Thanks Johns- your article is informative and as it is 30 in 30 days, it is more of a conversational piece than a once a month outing.I have been wanting to try Sunflower. The only vegetarian place I have eaten at is The Grit in Athens, which has some delectable dishes but I know they see the glow of red meat emitting from my skin, just as you can spot a vegan a mile away. Vegetarianism is great and I hope people are more mindful these days of what they put in their mouth, especially when it comes to antibiotic overfed factory cows that lead terrible, short lives. Steak is delicious but I think if Jesus walked into a cow plant and saw God’s creation being treated like auto parts, He would not be excited. Just a thought.

Mr. WhatDoIKnow

November 6th, 2009
11:32 am

John, you need to spice up your reviews a bit. With each review, will you please tell us if you stole a menu from the restaurant?

Matt

November 6th, 2009
11:48 am

The location in Sandy Springs is amazing. Another options that is close is World Peace Cafe. Both are excellent. Great desserts too!

Matt

November 6th, 2009
11:51 am

@Andres – Green Spout is really good for ITP vegetarian. http://www.greensproutga.com

Emily

November 6th, 2009
12:25 pm

Sounds like the reviewer wasn’t all that impressed. Oh, he’s trying to be nice about it, but my takeaway was that Cafe Sunflower was overpriced and lacking in flavor or creativity. I’m glad to see an honest restaurant review from AJC. Thank you, Mr. Kessler.

ziza

November 6th, 2009
12:38 pm

i am an ex-non-returning vegetarian and i enjoyed my one visit to sunflower in buckhead although i’ve never been back. i need to go as i really like a veg restaurant with nice ambience etc. world cafe was just ok to me, i think i’d just do veg plates from nicer restaurants. and ethnic places often have great veg options too.

Gina Bean

November 6th, 2009
2:15 pm

For a truly flavorful, somewhat pricey vegetarian meal, I love Soul Vegetarian in the west end.

John Kessler

November 6th, 2009
3:18 pm

bbb: Sounds like you have secret to lustrous skin: eat more cow.
Matt: Can’t wait to try World Peace Cafe.
And, yes, I’m just trying to call it like I see it. Most meals don’t elicit hate or love, but something in between. Parsing the in-between is always the most interesting, don’t you think?

don bieger

November 6th, 2009
5:56 pm

Review is great but where is the restaurant?

Tom

November 6th, 2009
6:27 pm

Have eaten at both locations of Cafe Sunflower and find both very good with some subtle differences. A bit pricey IMHO…but excellent tastes and textures. Other veggie options I like are 1. World Peace Cafe. The BEST veggie burger in town. Also great pimento cheese sandwiches and very fresh lemony dressing for salads. Also, Veggieland in Buckhead. A bit more pedestrian than Sunflower, but they have some great dishes and a white sauce for steamed broccoli that is just great.

Tom

November 6th, 2009
6:29 pm

To Don Beiger. Hi. The restaurant is in the back of the shopping center at Colonial Homes Drive and Peachtree, behind the Houstons.

Louis Prima

November 7th, 2009
4:27 pm

Enter your comments here
Jang Won Jung on N Berkely Lake in Duluth has a really yummy veggie bibim- bop, and it’s a bargain! Not to mention all the extra little sides of veggies they give for appetisers.

Dave

November 8th, 2009
5:07 pm

I’d applaud any restaurant that could turn okra into anything that’s edible, though I doubt that that is possible.

Tyrone Biggums

November 9th, 2009
9:53 am

I love vegetarian food but the prices at Cafe Sunflower have discouraged me from going there.

SSM

November 9th, 2009
10:17 am

Andres – some great vegetarian places ITP are as follows:

1. Veggieland in Buckhead on Pharr Road. Marie is fantastic and the food is super cheap. I recommend her veggie burger and John’s rolls.
2. Green Sprout across from Ansley Mall for great vegetarian and vegan Chinese take-out. (Harmony Vegetarain off Buford Hwy is excellent, but far)
3. Radial on Decatur Ave. is fantastic for veg. biscuits and gravy.
4. Cottage Ethiopian on Piedmont has an amazing vegetarian platter that can easily feed two people. If you’ve never had Ethiopian, I highly recommend. Eating without utensils is liberating.
5. I’m not sure if this is ITP, but it’s well worth the drive — Madras Saravaana Bhavan off of Lawrenceville Hwy. This is the best Indian food I’ve had in Atlanta. It’s 100% vegetarian specializing in South Indian cuisine. Great pick.
6. Chat Patti is fast food Indian near the Target on Druid and Briarcliff. 100% vegetarian.

There are more, but this is a great jumping off point. Good luck!

Chess

November 9th, 2009
12:02 pm

Sunflower is cool if are dating a vegetarian and need a warm cozy place to chat. However. I would never go there hungry. I had to stop and get some fries on the way home. Cute place but can I get some food on the plate.

StMtGal

November 9th, 2009
6:48 pm

How about some great vegetarian restaurants OTP? The only vegetarian restaurant I truly love is The Grit in Athens. Other suggestions for me? Tucker? Norcross? Stone Mountain?

Gabrielle

November 9th, 2009
9:58 pm

Chess, I went to Cafe Sunflower and I left stuffed! I had the Spring Rolls, Pepper Crusted Tempeh (I wish more restaurants had veg main courses on their menus – would it be so horrible to offer up some tempeh at say, oh, Après Diem maybe?) and carrot cake, and nearly wobbled my way home. Fantastic food, well prepared, and it’s so nice that a vegetarian can eat anything on the menu, and be happy!

Jayde

November 10th, 2009
10:25 am

There’s a new vegetarian restaurant (actually vegan) in Peachtree Corners called The Loving Hut. It’s at Holcomb Bridge and Spalding Drive. Very interesting place. The owner follows some sort of guru, and the guru’s own TV station plays on the wall while you’re eating. Once you get past the odd ambiance, the food ranges from good to excellent, at very moderate prices.

Gabrielle

November 10th, 2009
10:28 pm

Jayde, that guru is Supreme Master Ching Hai, and Supreme Master TV they play on their flat screens. I haven’t been to Loving Hut yet, but I really want to go, and one day while researching the place got sucked into the Supreme Master satellite TV station online – if it’s a cult, and Ching Hai is a guru, and they coerce people into going vegan and respecting each other and the environment, I wanna join!

Jason

December 17th, 2009
2:01 am

My girlfriend is vegetarian so we’ve been to Cafe Sunflower. The meal was okay but not memorable. I’m not vegetarian, but I cook a pretty serious vegetarian meal every night we don’t go out to eat, so I rarely eat meat more than once or twice per week and have no problem not having meat on my plate. That said, the only good options we’ve come across (being at least as good as what I would make at home on a regular night) are some Indian places and Dynamic Dish.