By Wendell Brock
Jan / Feb 2011, Issue #02
At Cafe Sunflower, chef-owners Lin and Edward Sun create bright, flavorful dishes influenced by American basics like meatloaf and chicken nuggets. They also whip up global favorites like Asian dumplings, Mexican quesadillas and Thai noodles. Quite remarkably, they do it all without a speck of meat.
An offshoot of the Sandy Springs location that opened in 1994, south Buckhead’s Cafe Sunflower is one of the city’s best vegetarian restaurants. While Atlanta’s increasingly diverse population has produced a smattering of authentic Indian, Chinese and Ethiopian veggie options, its supply of non-ethnic vegetarian restaurants isn’t exactly robust. (Case in point: Edgewood Avenue’s critically acclaimed Dynamic Dish, featuring imaginative vegetarian cuisine, recently closed after just three years.)
In a town that’s burger-crazed and churrascaria-packed, the Sun family’s casual, mid-priced kitchen is an anomaly: a veggie haunt that samples freely from world cuisine with mainstream diners in mind. Here, patrons take delight in consistently delicious salads and soups; soy-based replicas of everyday grub like burgers and ravioli; and a stellar lineup of original dishes. The food is freshly prepared, beautifully presented and accessible to both hardcore vegans and omnivores-anyone what wants to inhale the magic of sweet-potato polenta, stuffed acorn squash or soy “steak” fajitas.
The design is earthy and warm, the energy low-key and friendly. Divided into a roomy front area and a cozy back section, the space is painted a kind of mudslide brown and festooned with illuminated paper lanterns and sunny floral fabrics. Thanks to an enormous mirror covering the rear wall, the 3,000-square-foot restaurant feels more capacious that it actually is.
A midday visit started with a couple of choices from the “specials” list: batter-friedbrussel sprouts doused in sweet Asian sauce and a lovely, rather light soup of butternut squash. The brussel sprouts were quite tasty, though not exactly “crisp,” as described on the menu. Lasagna, offered at both lunch and dinner, is a winning pile of portobellos, eggplant, zucchini and red peppers, slathered with a roasted shallot marinara. Instead of the traditional sheets of pasta, there are layers of vegetables and a layer of orzo, the rice-shaped pasta made from barley. A pleasing entree, the lasagna comes with crisp salad greens studded with artichoke hearts and fat green olives.
I was curious about a “chicken” dish that a young friend had raved about. But before I ordered, I had to text him to confirm that I had the correct item. Turned out that is was sesame chicken–peppery soy nuggets smothered with a sweet-tangy sauce and paired with brown rice and a festival of broccoli, snow peas, mushrooms and zucchini. Memo to Sam: Right on, Bud. This stuff is seriously good.
Stopping by one night for dinner, my guests and I were surprised to discover a jaunty jazz saxophonist who apparently plays there on Thursdays and sometimes feels moved to vocalize. We may have had to lean forward to hear one another, but that didn’t drown out our lust for the fried green tomatoes slathered with hummus or the harvest salad: organic lettuces tossed with asparagus, Granny Smith apples, candied walnuts, dried cranberries and gorgonzola.
Pad Thai was a big, comforting bowl of noodles, veggies and strips of tofu bathed in peanut sauce, while the garden loaf was a dramatic, pyramidal affair crafted from triangles of soy-and-vegetable “meat,” mashed potatoes and a spring roll sliced on the diagonal. Our hands-down favorite entree was the walnut-crusted tofu cutlet, a richly burnished slab of faux meat, arranged on piles of collards, shiitakes and rice. The evening’s superstar.
The wine list mirrors the menu, circling the globe and bringing together a dependable selection from California, Italy, France, Argentina, Chile, Australia, and New Zealand. About a third of the 20 choices are organic. (You’ll have to go elsewhere for cocktails, however, Cafe Sunflower is not a liquor-swilling kind of place.)
In an effort to entice you to have dessert, servers always stop by with a tray of flawless-looking wedges of carrot, coconut, chocolate-peanut butter and chocolate raspberry mousse cake. All are vegan and most are prepared by an outside bakery. A better sweet indulgence is the house-made blueberry cobbler, spiked with fresh ginger and topped with a scoop of regular or soy ice cream. It’s a vivid finish to a memorable meal.
Here’s what you should know about Cafe Sunflower: If your teenager suddenly announces he’s gone vegan, or if your middle-age spread requires you to cut cholesterol, this restaurant offers a wise, healthy and affordable way to still eat out. In the end, I have come to believe it is an essential Atlanta restaurant that just happens to be vegetarian.