Earlier in the week I planned to meet a friend of mine for dinner on Saturday. I figured we would go to Sage Vegetarian Cafe in Chapel Hill, since I had never been there. I know. That statement is sheer craziness. How is it possible that I have been a vegetarian for twenty-three years, lived in the Triangle for twenty years, and been a caterer and vegan food blogger for the last three of those twenty, and have still never visited Sage Cafe? Yesterday I righted my wrong, humble and contrite for my negligence, and stepped into the illustrious Cafe for the first time.
And what a grand welcome I received! The staff is friendly and all that, but that is not what I am talking about. Unbeknownst to me, several of my friends from the Heart of Yoga School were already there, preparing to take over more than half of the tiny restaurant (I am pretty sure they cannot seat more than 35) with their entire Advanced Yoga Teacher Trainees, as well as K.Sridhar, who had just finished leading the first of his Yoga of Sound workshops with them. Always excited for a party, my friend and I joined them, thus creating a whopping party of 17. I have to say, although the waitress had plenty of cause to be flustered, she handled the whole thing with grace, being extremely pleasant and organized the whole time.
Much to my dismay, I was unable to do proper justice to their menu because I was still incredibly full from my unexpected late lunch at a little tacqueria in Durham. I rarely go out to eat (I swear!), so having my dinner hampered by some still-digesting vegetarian enchiladas verdes, was not something I had counted on. I was so un-starving that I couldn't even look at anything beyond the salads. Sage's menu is by no means extensive, and yet it has plenty of variety. In fact, the whole thing is posted online here. I ordered a Crunchy Sprout Salad, and my friend got the Goat Cheese Salad. Being at a table with 15 yoga students, you bet I had the opportunity to eye many a salad. Those salads were gigantic! I couldn't even finish mine and ended up having the rest of it for lunch today with some leftover (homemade) falafel. The vegan tofu & dill dressing that I had with my salad was very tasty, though uber garlicky. I suppose that is just to be expected with Persian cuisine. Nonetheless, I would put Sage's food in the category of "Delicious."
The Cafe's decor is clean and inviting, making it the perfect hang-out spot for vegetarians and omnivorous foodies alike. Clearly, the rest of Chapel Hill has come to appreciate this gem of a restaurant long before I got my act together - the place was completely packed last night. I even saw people turn away at the door, preferring not to brave the crowd inside. Had the weather been nicer, the restaurant could have accommodated several more would-be patrons outside. Overall I give Sage two thumbs up in terms of 1) food quality, 2) quality of service, 3) ambience, and of course 4) being a long-standing pillar of the vegetarian community. If only they could serve more people...
This week's theme, as you might could guess, is Southern Comfort Food. I had a request this week to cater an office luncheon. Now at this office there happens to be an employee who is not at all excited about vegan food. Being unfamiliar with vegan cooking, she is convinced that she won't like it and thus will go hungry. What a sweet, evil challenge for me! Now, I do not have the hubris to think that every non-believer will walk away from a Govinda's meal with a spiritual epiphany and a dietary conversion. However, some pretty amazing changes of opinion regarding vegan food have been known to happen... In order to make this foray into meat-free dining as comfortable as possible for said nervous employee, we are going with the cuisine that is most familiar to her. Cross your fingers, everyone! If the spicing comes out right and the love comes through, she may not even notice the absence of you-know-what in these black-eyed peas. :-) *GF, soy-free
For some reason, I often think of this soup as a "vegetarian starter-kit." Maybe it is because lentils are relatively easy to come by. They also cook quickly and don't require any advance soaking. The celery, carrots, potatoes, and spinach are all familiar soup vegetables that your mother might have used. This recipe is dedicated to my new friend Rebecca, who I just met last night. She is a victim of "vegan whiplash," meaning that she tried to change her diet too drastically, too quickly, without giving herself time to adjust or even learn some solid stand-by recipes to support a vegan lifestyle. Victims of vegan whiplash invariably become victims of "vegan boomerangism," returning to old eating habits that are familiar and sustainable. Newbie cooks, bookmark this recipe, I guarantee it will be your friend, going forward. *GF, soy-free
This recipe wins an award for being both very Southern and very new-cook friendly. The recipe calls for a wonderfully healthy variety of vegetables (you can totally use frozen veggies in a pinch), including Southern staples like okra, lima beans, and turnips. Let me tell you, those turnips added a distinct little bite to the soup the last time I made it. I don't know about y'all, but I love me some turnip. Add Creole seasoning to this soup and you can go ahead and take a nutritious, tomato-ey, culinary mini-vacation down to the Bayou! *GF, soy-free
Dirty Rice with Collards -$3/serving (1 cup) Black-eyed peas and Succotash would seem kind of naked without some Dirty Rice and Greens to go with it! The last time we made this rice was right after the New Year, when the grocery stores were still flooded with huge bunches of collard greens. I am hoping that my favorite farm, Walker Farm, will have some collards, so that you all can have true, Southern, un-trucked local greens for this dish. *GF
Mustard-Roasted Potatoes - $6/lb. About this dish, let me first say "OMG!" And then pause. And then say, "OMG, these potatoes were SO good the last time we made them!" I apologize for shameless gushing. Those were the overriding thoughts in my head, and I just couldn't think of anything more intelligible to say at the moment. Potatoes roasted with olive oil and spices are already delicious; when you add in a coating of high-quality mustard, it gives the potatoes an extra crunchy, spiciness that is absolutely irresistible. *GF, soy-free
Sweet Potato Cornbread - $2/ea. or 3/$5. Again, black-eyed peas, dirty rice, greens, succotash... all are incomplete without sweet potato cornbread. This is one of my favorite, favorite recipes. I could eat these naturally sweet corn muffins every day. Fortunately for my waistline, I don't. Wait, I forgot! These are actually guilt-free muffins. Made with only cornmeal, sweet potatoes, chia-seeds, and a little agave nectar, these treats have only good things to say to your arteries. *GF, soy-free
Chocolate Tofu "Creme" Pie - $4/slice, $20/pie. It is ridiculous how good some things are and how you don't get tired of eating those same ridiculously delicious foods over and over again. This pie certainly fits into that crazy-good category. Just a couple of weeks after we make it, at least one customer will ask me "So, um, when is that tofu pie coming back on the menu?" This pie is so outrageously delicious (and more than slightly nutritious) that I can, and do allow my son to eat it for breakfast. Chocolate Cake for breakfast, you've got nothing on this pie - made with tofu, coconut cream, dates, and walnuts (oh yeah, and chocolate chips) , it makes your body (mostly) happy at the same time that it tantalizes your tongue. *GF