To some, a dining column about vegetarian cuisine the week after Thanksgiving might sound about as timely as a sports headline about curling on the Monday after the Super Bowl.
Then again, it just might serve as a perfect antidote to the hype. Indeed, rather than exposing any deficiencies of flavor or originality, our back-to-back meals at Sunflower Cafe — the nearly vegan and largely gluten-free eatery in Berry Hill — and the giblet-juiced, lipid-loaded excesses of the Thanksgiving table actually highlighted the creativity and freshness of Laura Yazdian and Gabrielle Mittelstaedt's plant-based buffet. Just as a turkey-centric holiday spread had us convinced that vegetables exist only in the predictable range between marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes and lard-licked green beans, we happened upon Sunflower Cafe's dazzling array of soups, salads, entrees and desserts that leverage fruits, vegetables and grains into a menu remarkable for its bounty of farm-fresh flavor and creativity.
A former schoolteacher with a lifelong interest in nutrition, Yazdian met Mittelstaedt at an evening class about vegetarian cooking. The two recognized quickly that they were peas in a pod when it came to their passion for promoting healthy living through plant-based nutrition. Within a year, they were standing side by side at their cafe, a sunny cottage landscaped with apple trees in the yard and chard and herbs in the flower beds, doling out French lentil soup with sunflower seeds and baked Thai tofu with coconut and ginger from behind a lunch counter.
Perhaps owing to the bond between owners, there is an unmistakable feeling of community at Sunflower Cafe, where many guests know Mittelstaedt from her bygone Peaceful Planet vegetarian restaurant, her cooking classes at Gilda's Club and Wild Oats, and her years developing community-supported agriculture in Middle Tennessee. There is also a shared curiosity among diners, who lean between tables to ask questions — "Is that roasted buckwheat in the stuffed pepper?" — and offer endorsements — "The cabbage salad with coconut, apple and currants is like an improved Waldorf."
Likewise, tomato-based sloppy Joes made with lentils are arguably an improvement on both sloppy Joes and lentils. And surprise, as much as anything, is the order of the day, with unique items such as millet-rutabaga mash — think sweet and creamy mashed potatoes with a hint of nuttiness— and dairy-free chocolate mousse with tofu.
We were particularly surprised by how much we liked the kombucha on offer. Far from the punishing vinegar sting we expected, Sunflower's chai version (made locally by Dan McCarthy and served in a canning jar) delivered a subtle but refreshing kick that reminded us of another fermented drink we like a whole lot; it's like a beer with a warm hint of cinnamon and spice. There's also a soda fountain that dispenses organic ginger ale, root beer, watermelon cream soda and caffeine-free cola — all sweetened with agave.
The vast array of hot and cold items on the buffet can be a lot to take in, but you can minimize decision paralysis with the chef's special — an entrée plated with an ever-changing array of grains and vegetables to provide a balanced meal. In addition to stuffed peppers and Thai tofu, recent entrées include: lasagna with layers of spinach and kale, housemade marinara, and ricotta crafted from tofu and nutritional yeast; and shepherd's pie with a stew of rutabaga, turnip and daikon under a blanket of mashed potatoes and parsnips. Or instead, Mittelstaedt and Yazdian will assemble a sampler platter with bite-size servings of about 10 items, such as quinoa with silky tahini gravy, hummus, bok choy tossed with crumbled tofu, and arugula with pineapple, coconut and currants.
In our experiences, not everything was perfect. Sweet potato logs arrived cold, and cannellini beans were lukewarm and bland. Several salads lacked the proper zing of acidity, but that light treatment of the fresh local vegetables was still preferable to overdressing, and there is a broad selection of condiments, including hot sauce, bottled amino acids, brown rice vinegar and nutritional yeast on hand for bumping up the flavor.
With casual-dining restaurants of any stripe, the $64,000 question is often, "How's the burger?" Sunflower Cafe's veggie burger is excellent in its own right. The blend of chewy brown rice and sunflower seeds, colored with sun-dried tomatoes and sautéed beets, holds up well in a bun — without squishing out the sides. Or plated on a lettuce frond, with aioli and a dollop of sun-dried tomato-tofu cream, the burger has enough flavor, texture and visual appeal to stand alone, sans bun, as a gluten-free main event.
When it comes to gluten-free treats, there's an intriguing selection of cookies and brownies made without flour and sweetened with agave. We particularly enjoyed a chocolate bar made with puffed rice, which reminded us of a Nestle Crunch bar, and the chocolate mousse, whose creamy texture exceeded our tofu-dampened expectations.
Perhaps the most lasting memory of Sunflower Cafe was the unexpected banana-orzo pudding created by Niles Franco. Mildly sweet but boldly creative, the parfait, accented with cinnamon, lemon and agave and topped with shredded coconut, reminded us just how much plant-based food can delight and surprise the palate while nourishing the body. For that healthful and encouraging reminder, we are thankful — any time of year.
Sunflower Cafe serves lunch Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and is available for private parties. The restaurant will host the opening dinnerfor the second annual Tennessee Local Food Summit, Friday, Nov. 30, 6-8 p.m. Dinner is $20 per person, or free with registration to the conference. (See Critics' Picks on page 25.)