Wednesday, May 24, 2006

the restaurant that Stuart Smiley built

One of the more memorable characters from Saturday Night Live was Al Franken's Stuart Smiley, the sexually ambiguous non-therapist that doled out positivity statements including, "I'm good enough. I'm smart enough. And doggonit people like me."

I had lunch at a restaurant the other day. The kind of restaurant I would imagine if Stuart Smiley were a real person might have created. It's called Cafe Gratitude. They have two restaurants in SF and one that recently opened in Berkeley in a brick building that used to hold an Italian restaurant. I had read about it in the Chronicle and didn't know that they had opened up in Berkeley.

You enter, a wall of merchandise on the right: books on raw foods, glass jars, and other healthful items. The bar which I suspect used to serve various wines, now serves 4 menu pages worth of milkshakes, nut milks, wheatgrass mixers, teas and coffees. I was eating alone that day and got sat at a larger table with other loners.

The cups held natural fiber napkins. And we each were given a water bottle that had a different word etched on it, "Hope", "Joy", "Fun". OK I thought that was cute, drink up on "joy". The water, room temp, I learned later was just tap water that was sent through some kind of intense filtration system.

The walls are decorated with the artwork of what I would later learn is the "Abounding River" board game, that introduces players to the idea of abundance. There are cards of the game found in a basket in the middle of the table. The cards start with some kind of insprirational quote from someone or something famous or sagely: bible quotes, sufi quotes, Oprah. Followed by a list of reflection questions and lastly a "river guide" quote.

The menu is filled with various raw/vegan dishes and plenty of liquid refreshments. They are all named with a statement, "I am {some positivity word}". My table mates ordered the enchilada aka "I am elated". When the waitress placed the plate in front of them she told them, "you are elated!" I ordered a sampler plate, "I am abundant" along with a chocolate mint milkshake called, "I am cool". You guessed it, the waitress then declared that I was cool and abundant when they arrived.

As for the environment and decor I could see how this place was "SO BERKELEY" oh wait, I should call it, "I AM SO BERKELEY". But really what does it for me at any restaurant is the food. My "abundant" plate had Live nachos, kale-sea veggie salad, stuffed mushroom, olive tapenade, live hummus, and a mini Thai coconut soup. Served with assorted live crackers and almond toast. The stuffed mushroom was delicious, along with the kale-sea veggie salad. The chillded Thai coconut soup was not as rich as the Thai soup at a real Thai restaurant but it was pleasant. Everything else was, eh. If you're allergic to nuts, forget about it, just about everything is a pureed nut somewhere, which can give everything some nutty grit. The chocolate mint shake had good flavor. I especially enjoyed the fresh mint as opposed to the overly strong mint in say chocolate mint ice cream. But it was made with cashew milk and I wish they had filtered more of the gritty cashew bits out. Grant it you could drink it down, but I kept feeling these little nut bits that I should chew.

I struck up a conversation with my tablemate who ordered the enchilada. He said it had 5 different flavors and 7 different textures and sometimes they blended together well and other times they clashed. It was an overall rave, but I think more for the interesting experience of the food. An avid key lime pie eater, he said their key lime pie was quite delicious. At this point, I am currently finding the menu hit or miss.

My tablemate asked me how I found out about the place (just decided to walk down the street) and I asked him how he found out about it, (from his therapist). And thus, I ended the conversation there because I really don't want to know about his therapy and then I imagined his therapist and thought, "yeah, a therapist would LOVE this place." There were moments sitting there I felt like I was in this surreal place of over self-affirmation and everyone around me had this glowing haze in their eyes. I had to stop myself from bursting into laughter when I remembered the Stuart Smalley episodes and thinking that maybe I was in one of them right now.

Overall I like the idea of abundance and I don't really disagree with the general idea and philosophy of it. I don't disagree with raw and vegan food. I think the cafe is a good place to go and detox after a weekend of Filipino parties laden with meat. But the combination of the both and the constant self-affirmation made me want to go out like Hemingway and shoot myself with a shotgun! Or maybe that was my system rebelling from the raw food, but being a rather healthy eater, probably not.

I have been in parties and hung out with groups of people where the feeling of abundance was real. But being in that cafe was surreal and there was a palpable hollowness to it. That by overly doing the statement of "abundance and affirmation" it was more a sign that "abundance and affirmation" were things still being searched for. That the practice of living an abundant (and I'll now replace the word with prosperous) life is not something that can be chosen off a menu or drunk from an etched water bottle.

In the end Cafe Gratitude was not about the food nor the philosophy, it was about the experience. And I can't say that the experience is either good nor bad, but simply an experience. Which means to say that I wouldn't ever go there again, but then I wouldn't actively look to go there again. And for a restaurant, that's not a good thing. I mean, do you really want to recommend a place where your first reaction is, "WTF was that?" But considering the high density of therapists and raw foodists in the area, this cafe is probably sitting under the proper abundant tree.

1 comment:

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