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Atlanta Vegetarians and Vegans
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January 2010
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Cafe Sunflower: A Review

I had previously posted a mini-review of Atlanta’s ubiquitous vegetarian restaurant, Café Sunflower. This time around, I’m trying to give a more comprehensive review of one of any Atlanta vegetarian’s must-eat restaurants. In my opinion, after Lush in cabbagetown closed, Café Sunflower was elevated to the titles of Atlanta’s best vegetarian restaurant and Atlanta’s most upscale vegetarian restaurant.

Café Sunflower has two locations, with slightly different atmospheres and menus: Buckhead and Sandy Springs. Perhaps the most notable difference between the two locations (to me at least) is that the Buckhead location serves beer and wine while the Sandy Springs location does not. While neither location is necessarily formal, we often eat at the Buckhead location for special occasions, and have never felt out of place there dressed formally as the Buckhead location seems quite atmospherically adaptable to casual or formal settings. Perhaps it’s just me, but I tend to perceive the Sandy Springs location to be more appropriate for casual dining. We are about equidistant from both locations so we tend to go to Sandy Springs for lunch and quick dinners and the Buckhead location for more important occasions, but admittedly, that has something to do with the alcohol availability as well. Both locations are cozy, impeccably clean, and present a warm and inviting décor. We have eaten many many times at Café Sunflower and the staff has always been exceptionally outgoing and accommodating.

Those details aside, it is the food that is of paramount importance. Café Sunflower presents a pretty typical representation of American vegetarian restaurant fare: some comfort food, some Asian and Indian dishes, some Italian dishes, etc. While Café Sunflower may not be reinventing the wheel with their menu, they execute it extremely well. We’ve probably had most every entrée on the menu at Café Sunflower, and were only disappointed once. That one incident involved the Peppercorn Crusted Tempeh, which I would advise steering clear of unless you like the sensation of chewing on whole peppercorns (were we supposed to scrape them off?). Highlights include the Southern Polenta Napolean, Sesame Chicken (out of this world), Tri Colored Ravioli, Veggie Burger (best in Atlanta?), Spicy Pad Thai (highly recommended), Stir Fry with Tofu in Ginger sauce, Moo Shu Vegetables (extremely good), Sweet and Sour Soy Chicken (best in Atlanta again), Bakes Samosas (dream about these). Two of these entrees deserve further mention. The Stir Fry with Tofu in Ginger sauce is undoubtedly the quintessential Café Sunflower dish and is in a league of its own. The tofu is so succulent, sweet, and perfectly flavored and combined with a flawlessly executed stir-fry of vegetables, mushrooms, and plump brown rice. In the Sandy Springs location, the Moo Shu Vegetables entrée redefined for me just how good vegetarian Chinese dishes could be. The dish is fried, but so fresh and light that it almost defies the cooking technique. If you’re going all out, I’d definitely recommend the Sunflower Box starter. This comprises a Bento box with hummus, stuffed mushrooms, pot stickers, basil rolls, spaghetti squash cakes, and spring rolls (depending on which location). Each of these items is extremely good. As for dessert, the desserts at Café Sunflower are to me absolutely legendary. Café Sunflower buys in their desserts and I am trying to find out their source. I do know that Java Monkey in Decatur has many of the same vegan cakes as Café Sunflower, but these are the types of vegan desserts that could tempt any non-vegan to give up their allegiance to dairy and eggs. The Old-fashioned chocolate cake must be had by all Atlanta-area vegans. Either at Café Sunflower or Java Monkey, it is imperative.

If this review is too glowing, I can offer some sincere criticisms. Firstly, the Café Sunflower menu has not changed in the entire 5-7 year period we have been patronizing the restaurant. This bothers me more and more each time we go. There are variable specials each night, and these are unwaveringly good, but with the culinary skill of Café Sunflower’s executive chef/owner and her supporting staff, I really would expect to see a more seasonal menu. Even if not a seasonal menu, a yearly menu update would be so welcome to this patron. My second criticism came about after I made the jump from vegetarian to vegan. Café Sunflower is a vegetarian paradise, not quite so much for a vegan. There are many vegan options, and the staff is certainly sensitive to the requests of vegan diners, but sometimes it’s nice to have a plethora of vegan menu choices without having to inquisition the server as to the contents of a dish or request modifications. I would welcome a 50/50 menu, but without looking, I would estimate the menu is more like 70% ovo-lacto, 30% vegan. My final criticism simply concerns pricing. I don’t mind paying a fair price for a good meal, but I feel that Café Sunflower is a little bit more expensive than is justified. This is exacerbated by the fact that this is the only restaurant where I order an appetizer, entrée, and dessert without fail, but I think a 10-20% reduction in menu price would be more in line with my expectations as a patron.

If you haven’t been to Café Sunflower, I highly recommend you check out what you may have been missing. If you have, what are your favorite dishes? What do you make of this Atlanta vegetarian landmark?

Comments

Thanks for the very informative review. I have been considering trying this place for a long time now, but like you, I have transitioned from vegetarian to vegan, and I would only hope my choices would be varied if/when I do go.

Having a constant menu doesn't bother me so much, as when I was an omnivore I frequented Apres Diem, where the menu never changed, though there were those variable specials nightly.

Cafe Sunflower sounds good - I hope I can scrape up some cash to try it soon.

I had long feared the vegetarian to vegan conversion, but I'm so happy that I've made the leap and wouldn't go back for anything. I honestly don't feel that I've sacrificed much at all, other than losing some choices when eating outside of the home. Have you had the same experience? As mentioned in my review and the comments below, Cafe Sunflower is pretty pricey, at least given the food and environment. If you've never been, my honest opinion is that it's worth the expense to try at least once. All in all, we love the place. I would change a few things if I could, but we keep going back. As for my complaint about the menu changes, that is kind of a two-fold thing. On one hand, I've pretty much eaten everything off the menu there that I will ever try. Some of the dishes I crave and would be sad to see go, but sometimes novelty is in order. The second aspect of this complaint is a more recent development. Just in the past six months, we started the whole locavorism thing. We buy produce from a CSA and a local farmer's market exclusively. Thus, we're eating only locally grown produce that is rigidly seasonal. Although a few restaurants (like Dynamic Dish) have embodied this concept, I'm sure it's harder for restaurants to incorporate than an individual home. That being said, my experience has been that once you start eating produce only when it is in season, any produce that is served out of season seems suspect or not right. I understand that this might sound like the height of snobbishness, but it strikes me as the natural product of experiencing the culinary rewards of eating only seasonal produce that hasn't been artificially ripened. A bit of a tangent, but I wanted to explain why the lack of menu changes bothered me. In any case, the daily specials at Sunflower tend to be pretty fantastic and usually shut me up about my need for novelty. Post back if you try it out, I'd love to see your review.

I honestly don't feel that I've sacrificed much at all, other than losing some choices when eating outside of the home. Have you had the same experience?

Not really. I was always a huge foodie, interested in food and cooking from a very young age, watching "Galloping Gourmet" and "The French Chef" on TV when I was just a tot, taking cooking classes when I was a teen and into my twenties. My father was quite the gourmet, and my mother enjoyed preparing large quantities of ethnic dishes like Arroz con Pollo, and Lasagna for crowds. Eliminating all animal flesh and byproducts was hard enough, but I had convenience foods I could rely on, as I am not the cook I once was, and work full time, and go home at night and want to eat, not prepare.

Now, as I read labels, I find bits of animal products in nearly everything that has a label. And I do miss the flavor of meat, stocks, eggs, cheese, etc. I miss it all a lot!

I shopped at the Peachtree Road Farmers Market a few times this summer, and really enjoyed buying locally, coming home with fresh produce and cooking, but I don't always have the energy to do all of that. I don't know how single people work full time and shop and prepare meals for themselves. Maybe one day I'll find the balance.

As far as the locavore movement and restaurants having a tougher time? I think they would have a much easier time. They have connections, and I know Michael Tuohy, for one, made it his passion to procure only from local farms and vendors, and purchase as "humanely" raised meats as possible (yes, I have heard of humanemyth.org). Unfortunately, he moved to California, but I know there are other restaurants and chefs around Atlanta very interested in the local and regional, and yes, seasonal movements. They are, however, not vegan nor vegetarian chefs.

Here's something fun, though, Google "vegan Atlanta" and read about all the local options.

I'll be sure to post if/when I try Cafe Sunflower. I get paid monthly, and this month I'm already strictly tied to my budget, so it won't be any time soon. :)

I refuse to go to the Buckhead location anymore, except for dessert. The food simply isn't worth the price. I'm willing to pay high prices for well-executed dishes, but have been disappointed too many times to ever seriously go back. The Sandy Springs location remains my favorite.

More vegan options would be delightful, but, oh well, so it goes. Agreed on the desserts. Oh and the last time I went to the Sandy Springs location the service was a bit off, which has never happened to me before. Usually the service, at both locations, has been excellent.

"but sometimes it’s nice to have a plethora of vegan menu choices without having to inquisition the server as to the contents of a dish or request modifications."

It just comes with the territory.

Glad to hear your comments. Other than the pepper crusted tempeh that I mentioned, we have never been disappointed with the food. Perhaps if we had experienced more disappointments, I would be less loyal. I hold Cafe Sunflower in some particular esteem in a large part because this restaurant first showed me how good vegetarian food could be, when I was used to just ordering the cheese pizza/bean burrito class of vegetarian option at non-vegetarian restaurants. That is, I credit Sunflower for elevating my culinary knowledge of vegetarian cuisine...and those desserts are just off the chain. The cost is prohibitive though, which is why we now tend to reserve it for special occasions. You are of course absolutely right regarding what comes with the territory of being a vegan. However, even if it is an unrealistic expectation, I sometimes get frustrated when vegetarian restaurants don't cater just a bit more to vegans, who likely make up a significant portion of their customer base.

My intro to veg*n cuisine was by my best friend, who happens to be a phenomenal cook, so I never had any particular nostalgic association with any area restaurants.

As for vegans significantly making up a portion of customer base in vegetarian restaurants, I don't know, there really aren't that many vegans around. It's probably true the other way around though, that vegetarians make up a sizable portion of customers at vegan restaurants.