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I approached Sunflower like a nervous hunting dog: my nose in the air, all my hair on end. From half a block away, I tried to suss out the vibe of the joint, watching the crowds milling around the doors and patio, sniffing the breeze for any hint of patchouli, incense or open-toed Birkenstock hippie funk. Slinking down 17th Street, I stared through the long bank of windows running along the west side of the restaurant, mentally cataloguing the customers seated inside, looking at their plates to see what they were eating and checking to make sure the servers were all wearing shoes.
1701 Pearl St.
Boulder, CO 80302-5582
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Citrus cooler: $5.50
Organic, shade-grown, Third-World coffee: $2
Steak and eggs: $12.95
Blueberry pancakes: $7.95
Salmon latke: $8.50
Ahi tuna: $22.95
Shrimp and scallops: $22
Berry shortcake: $6.95
Laura and I had come up to Boulder so that I could drag her to yet another French restaurant and satisfy my serious hunger for some steak frites and snails, but the place I had in mind wasn't open yet. Laura was relieved, because she's getting pretty sick of French food -- and Sunflower was on the way back to our car, just off the Pearl Street Mall.
She told me to stop skulking, because it was making people nervous, and to put out my cigarette. I told her the people inside were making me nervous, because vegetarians and their politically correct ilk represent the absolute antithesis of everything I find good and decent in the culinary world, with their sometimes violent and always ideologically elitist rejection of the sacrificial blood bond between animal, cook and dinner.
Of course, I didn't say it quite so eloquently then. It was more like "Fucking vegetarians."
I was on edge, approaching the camp of my perceived enemy. But I was also hungry. So we went inside.
The four-year-old Sunflower is listed all over the Web as a must-visit destination for any wandering vegetarians who find themselves in the People's Republic of Boulder -- as most wandering vegetarians eventually do. It's won every veggie-centric award out there and is constantly fawned over by every meatless, wheatless, smoothie-sucking, twig-and-berry devotee who's ever visited. But as it turns out, Sunflower is not a vegetarian restaurant. It's a great goddamn-regular restaurant that -- along with everything else it does with talent and dedication -- also serves vegetarian and full-on vegan fare.
Laura and I were seated by the windows in a space nicely organized into three seating areas, none of them crowded, all done in warm pastels and earth tones. Early-afternoon sunshine flooded the place with natural light, and strange art in bright colors decorated the walls. The servers were friendly, smiling and attentive without being smothering, servicing their tables with a casual, laid-back competence. They were well educated on Sunflower's menu and mission, honestly proud of what they served, and they had enough interaction with the kitchen to understand its intent. It was important to them that all the food was fresh, not frozen, that their produce was organic, their meats drug- and hormone-free. And all of this came out in our waiter's opening pitch after he discovered it was our first time at Sunflower. He made suggestions, recommending an excellent citrus smoothie off the long drink menu for Laura and explaining how no dairy -- no cream or yogurt -- was used in making them, just a muscular, mega-horsepower blender that pulverized whole fresh fruit and whipped it up into an impossibly creamy purée. For me, there was organic, shade-grown coffee that came with cane sugar and cream, but without the expected lecture on the plight of the native coffee growers of Chiapas.
And when I ordered my steak and eggs rare and over easy, I was even happier to hear our waiter reply: "Excellent. Only way to have 'em."
What? I thought. No abuse? No sneering? No surreptitiously dropping a PETA brochure on my plate?
I had been surprised -- and pleased -- to find steak and eggs on the menu at all. Sunflower serves bison steak with its organic eggs, and our waiter was right: Rare is the only way to eat this meat. Anything past medium-rare starts killing the silky, lightly gamy flavor and can turn what is an otherwise incredibly tender loin cut into something roughly the consistency of a truck tire.
The steak -- a small portion, about the size of a child's fist -- came to the table with a perfect sear on the outside; it was cool and bloody within, dusted lightly with Celtic sea salt (powerfully concentrated stuff, with a slight musky, deep-sea aftertaste about halfway between plain kosher coarse-grain and the powdery orange, viciously fishy Black Sea variety) and spices. It was attended by freshly roasted potatoes, herbed up and crunchy, and two big eggs that looked overdone.
Before I could even get a fork into them, our waiter was leaning over the table. "Those are overcooked," he said. No argument, no debate, and no need to call over his manager for a second opinion.
"Maybe a little," I replied. "That's okay."
"No," he said. "They're wrong. Those are over-medium. Let me have the kitchen re-cook the plate." He was adamant about taking responsibility for making it right himself, and in the Zen of floor management, he'd progressed to a point of enlightenment where mistakes are best fixed by simple acceptance: The kitchen made an error; errors happen; please let us try again.
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