Good, and Good for You
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.
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.
"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.
But I was hungry, and the eggs looked good to me. So when I again insisted that the plate was okay, our waiter nodded and went to check on his other tables. He was a pure pro, delivering the kind of service I always find startling because it's so rare these days.
While I was reassuring the waiter, Laura had dug into a fat stack of wheaty pancakes buried under house-mixed granola and a Maine harvest of summer blueberries. The cakes were soft and fluffy but heavy. Three vegetarian lumberjacks (or one grumpy restaurant critic getting kinda fat around the middle) could have shared this plate and walked away satisfied. My only complaint was the same one any diner brat raised, like me, on truck-stop flapjacks would have: The real maple syrup served with them came in one of those tiny tin pitchers the size of a demitasse cup. For me, that would have handled about two bites, but I'm a shameless hog for oversweetened breakfast foods; I even put syrup on my sausages. But for Laura, who is considerably more dignified and healthy, the syrup was just enough.
We ate as much as we could; she drained her huge citrus cooler; I finished my third cup of coffee, and we were out of there -- full and happy. Hell, I'd been so pleased with my breakfast, I'd even forgotten to make fun of all the utopian triathletes scarfing down their oat bran -- which, when in Boulder, is my favorite pastime.
I was back in Boulder a week later, for dinner at Sunflower with Sean -- perhaps the only ex-cook I know who's more hostile toward the politicization of food than I am. Sean wants his own TV show, called The Hostile Gourmet, where he can nail a goose's feet to a board on-camera and force-feed it grain through a funnel to show people where foie gras comes from. And I want to be his co-host.
We arrived at seven for the second seating during Saturday night's dinner rush and immediately dove into the house sangria, which is made with fresh fruit and organic wine. It was awful, weak and acidic, and tasted like the dregs from a bathtub filled with frat-house "jungle juice" -- watery Kool-Aid jacked up with grain alcohol. Our server -- a waitress this time -- rolled out the same disclaimer about fresh this and organic that when Sean told her it was our first time at Sunflower, then offered a knowledgeable description of the night's specials.
For an appetizer, I had the potato latkes, smeared with crème fraîche, topped with soft, velvety-pink Norwegian salmon and mounted over clean, organic, non-chemically treated and consequently delicious raw greens dressed with a lace of bitter vinaigrette. I can taste pesticides and any chem-lab additives on foods before they even leave the kitchen, and I hate the tinny, metallic flavor of ethylene and ammonia derivatives that cling to treated veggies no matter how thoroughly they are washed. These had none of that, so the actual deep-green flavors of baby spinach, endive and frisée came forward plain and unadulterated. The combination of crisp potato pancake, fatty, sweet salmon, cold crème fraîche, beautiful greens and tart vinaigrette all came together to set off those fireworks that only occur when every flavor and texture on a plate comes perfectly balanced against its neighbors.
I passed the plate to Sean, and he looked like he was going to cry, making low, guttural noises of appreciation as he shoved a huge forkful into his mouth. We eat with abandon when we're together, Sean and I. That's the rule. Everything in excess; everything now. We devoured a plate of mediocre ahi tuna, seared rare and served in big chunks over organic basmati rice with sautéed bok choy and a wonderful coconut-milk-and-lemongrass sauce. We assaulted a simple bowl of penne in a pomodoro sauce that was like a meditation on tomato -- just fresh, sugary, perfectly ripe-off-the-vine organic tommies done concassé-style (steamed or boiled to remove the skins and seeded by hand), then roughed up and tossed with a little garlic, a little salt and pepper, some raw-milk cheese and the penne. The bowl was topped with a sprinkling of schiffonade Italian basil, and that was it: nothing special, nothing wild, only perfect, warm and comforting.
The shrimp in the entree special were oddly sized and somehow greasy, but stiff, meaty and fresh -- "never frozen," just as the waitress had promised -- with that delicate seawater tang that's instantly ruined by freezing. The scallops were rich and big as marshmallows, melting like high-fat butter as soon as I popped them in my mouth, but there were only two on the skewers, and I ate both before Sean could get a fork in. On the side was couscous with garbanzo beans that would have benefited from a little salt and lemon.
And then there was the broccoli rabe: It was one of the five worst things I've ever put in my mouth in the course of this job. Rabe (also called rab, rape, rapa and rapini) is not a kind of broccoli but is in the same family (brassica, to be specific). A leafy green with a tiny floret at its center, rabe is the creepy, dark and pungent uncle left off on his own at the brassica family picnic, the one the kids are warned to stay away from. In its preparation here, it tasted so powerfully of woody, mineral-rich stalks and earth and dirt and the deepest, greenest heart of all growing things that one tiny bite was like being smashed in the mouth with a mossy, broccoli-flavored rock. It was as though this kitchen had somehow purified and concentrated a thousand heads of broccoli down onto one plate, added a pinch of salt, then drenched the whole thing in pine oil. I could barely choke it down. But I also loved it, because this was proof that every awful, bland and tasteless vegetarian dish I've ever had sucked purely on its own merits. Proof that there can be more flavor coaxed out of (or forced onto) vegetables than one critic can take, and that when veggie cuisine comes off as limp and nutless, it's that way only because the kitchen that prepared it was itself limp and nutless.
On top of everything else I liked about Sunflower, I really liked this proof that when something tastes bad, it is never, ever the food's fault.
Sunflower's kitchen can cook. There's no doubt about that. Even when it makes something terrible, it's terrible in an explosive, mind-blowing way. And there was even a dessert -- a fresh berry shortcake swimming in sweetened tofu cream, of all things -- that took our breath away. Tofu is a joke, a food made to be laughed at, and this tofu had no business being turned into something so good, smooth, mellowly creamy and delicious that it could have blown away all but the top pastry departments in town.
In fact, there's more blood and fire in this galley than in most full-bore steakhouses, and the same amount of care and delicacy in the hands of these cooks that you'd find in any of the most rigorously high-end kitchens. Yes, Sunflower has something of a stealth agenda for cooking healthy, but they don't get all activist about it. Theirs is a menu without manifesto and a kitchen that understands that good product, handled with respect, is the only secret to making great food.
Healthy or not.
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