- Thom Sheridan
- Good Nabors: Mustard Seed mogul Phillip Nabors has helped make healthy eating hip.
These are great times to be a health-conscious gourmet in Cleveland. Even the most militant food nazis among us admit that they don't have to settle for gummy brown rice, raw carrots, and a handful of kibble when they go out looking for a wholesome restaurant meal. On the other hand, thanks in large part to local chefs like Parker Bosley (Parker's) and Steve Parris (Fulton Bar & Grill), no true gourmet would argue with the notion that organic, seasonal, and naturally raised foods -- whether arranged to please a vegan, vegetarian, or carnivorous palate -- are the best-tasting and most luxurious ingredients around.
Into this culinary landscape now comes the Mustard Seed Café, a handsome restaurant inside the Solon Mustard Seed Market. Its health-food credentials are impeccable. Owners Phillip and Margaret Nabors have devoted the past 20 years to providing Northeast Ohioans with natural whole foods, first at their store in Montrose and, since late 1999, in this 56,000-square-foot über-market in the Cleveland suburbs. But their restaurant is no grim shrine to tofu and tree bark. You'll look in vain here for bowls of righteously indigestible beans, piles of gritty sprouts, or bitter granola cookies with the texture of cattle fodder. Instead, the café's large menu provides an almost dizzying array of sophisticated possibilities. Goat-cheese and mushroom pizza rubs shoulders with smoked salmon sushi, for instance, and a vegetarian tempeh Reuben shares space with a 12-ounce rib-eye steak.
Entrée prices are generally moderate, portions are ample, and items that are vegetarian and vegan (free of all animal products) are clearly marked. Main events come with a salad of mixed organic greens and a choice of homemade dressings (best bets are the Sesame Tahini and the oil-free Tofu Peppercorn Parmesan), together with warm slices of freshly baked bread. One evening's sturdy Pain au Levain, for example, made with organic unbleached wheat flour, had the chewy crust and coarse crumb of a sourdough, but without the characteristic tang. It proved to be such a hit around the table that we went down to the bakery after dinner and bought a loaf to take home.
The café's extensive juice menu is another distinctive feature. The dozens of freshly squeezed organic selections range from simple carrot or orange juice to fanciful combos like Zanzibar Zinziber (pineapple, apple, and orange, with ginger) and the Waldorf Hysteria (carrot, apple, and celery, with mint). Then there are shakes, smoothies, sodas, organic teas, bottled spritzers, soy milk, and all sorts of espresso-based coffee drinks made with freshly roasted-and-ground beans and purified water, passed through unbleached filters. If that's not choice enough, the servers will also let you indulge your own personal juice fantasies; we came up with a beet, apple, carrot, and ginger combination we liked so well, we ordered it again on a second visit.
Among chef Ron Wilcox's more traditional "health food" entrées, deliciously smoky stir-fried vegetables, topped with an optional bit of grilled chicken breast and settled on a hillock of perfectly prepared brown rice, were luscious, although -- and we aren't people who automatically reach for a salt shaker -- the dish needed a vigorous salting. On the other hand, that vegetarian tempeh Reuben -- sautéed slices of nutty fermented soybean cake served on toasted sourdough rye with Thousand Island, organic sauerkraut, and Gruyère -- was full of flavor, with a delightful crunch. It didn't suffer a bit, either, from the fragrant sweet potato fries that we ordered on the side. And a massive slab of savory tofu-and-oat cake, settled on a bed of spaghetti and slathered with a bright marinara and loads of melted Mozzarella, was more flavorful and fresh-tasting than some versions of Veal Parmesan.
However, the more upscale meat dishes seemed to play a subdued second fiddle to their green or grainy counterparts. It's not that the lamb, beef, or fish was of poor quality; it just tasted tantalizingly underseasoned. Slightly overcooked oven-roasted salmon, for instance, owed an enormous debt of gratitude to its accompaniment of sweet and juicy pineapple salsa for its flavor. We remember our impressive-looking rack of lamb (a generous pileup of eight tiny, tender chops) more for its bed of mouth-watering Israeli couscous than for the mildly seasoned meat. And a bland rib-eye steak, closer to medium than to the specified medium-rare, was completely overshadowed by its side of mixed veggies, a summery cornucopia of tender-crisp zucchini, yellow squash, sugar peas, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, and a bouquet of asparagus spears. Exquisite lobster-studded mashed potatoes, erupting with a blast of buttery claw meat, were the final kicker on this plate, leaving our omnivorous companion to exclaim, "It would have been better if they had just skipped the steak entirely!"
Still, the kitchen's frank misfires were few. Tabbouleh, part of the Mid East Feast appetizer platter, along with warm, pine-nut-topped hummus, kalamata olives, pita bread, and unremarkable rice-stuffed grape leaves, had an oddly flaccid texture and was breathtakingly sour. And an individually sized white pizza, with fresh garlic, spinach, artichoke hearts, and mozzarella, was flavorful -- but so greasy that the oil ran down our wrist.
Sweet endings ranged from an enticingly rich, mascarpone-laced tiramisu to a forgettable wedge of flabby-crusted, gummy cherry pie. We couldn't help feeling that a dairy-free, gluten-free coconut-rice pudding was entirely too healthful to make a satisfying dessert. However, a portion of warm apple cobbler -- neither too sweet nor too austere -- was suitably indulgent, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a billowing top hat of silken whipped cream.
Just as the food here is more sophisticated than in those rustic hippie restaurants of yore, so is the ambiance. The airy upstairs dining room is pleasantly moderne, with lots of cherry-stained wood set off with black and gold accents. The sleek bar, open kitchen, and a view of the market floor below provide visual interest. A stairway landing is dominated by a painted pair of debonair dancers, à la Fred and Ginger, captured in mid-dip, and the dining room's spacious wooden dance floor encourages guests to try out their own steps when musicians entertain on Saturday nights. Plates are artfully composed and finished with pretty garnishes: perhaps a drizzle of balsamic reduction, a tangle of fried leeks, or a brunoise of colorful peppers and herbs. White cloth napkins and glass goblets lend the black tabletops some sparkle, and an intelligent selection of moderately priced wines helps complete the image. Against this upscale backdrop, then, we are still wondering what to make of a server who insisted we reuse our soiled flatware, and of the little plastic-clad individual butter pats that came with the bread and seemed wrong from both an ecological and aesthetic perspective.
Despite such lapses, the Mustard Seed Café's concept -- the happy culinary collision of sophisticated technique and upscale atmosphere with healthful, wholesome foods -- is meaningful and timely. Now, if Wilcox and his staff can tweak their output a bit, adopting a bolder, more complex flavor palette and sweating the details more consistently, this would truly be a garden of earthly delights.