Dharma Cafe has moved to an old, renovated building on Houston Avenue at Crocket. This healthy food restaurant has a lot going for it: a charming interior with a welcoming feel, a fantastic small wine list, fresh ingredients, attractive prepration, good prices. It is just missing one thing -- flavor.
I dig Dharma on the inside. It is a charming old building with a lot of windows and light. It is decorated with a beautiful bar, photos of iconic beat poets, bookcases filled with cool books, antique chairs and tables, a beautiful front window looking out on Houston Ave., and some hokey new age art. Apart from the art, this is the kind of place I like to hang out.
For a cheap, casual restaurant, Dharma has a great little wine list. The 40 - 50 wines are from all over the world, but is dominated by Italians and French Rhones. It is refreshing to see something other than the same, tired, massed-produced California wines. Dharma also has a well-selected, small international list of beers.
Good ingredients, but few spices
Dharma's menu is dominated by salads and sandwiches with fresh ingredients. They have a soup of the day and a small handfull of cooked dishes. Every dish looks pretty -- most with red and green colors. And the ingredients are all fresh.
My complaint is that every dish I tried lacks flavor.
For instance, Dharma serves everyone free focaccia bread with a little parmesan, olive oil, and vinegar. The bread has a wonderful toothsome quality, and the texture can be addictive. But there is a hole in the middle of the flavor. It was not until my second visit that I discovered the problem: the bread has almost no salt. Fortunately, the problem is easily fixed with a salt shaker.
It was harder to solve the blandness of a daily special eggplant soup. The soup had an interesting texture with large, firm cubes of eggplant in a thin broth. But the soup had only one flavor -- eggplant. I like cooking with eggplant because it is a good canvass for other flavors. But the funky, vegetal flavor of eggplant by itself is, at best, an acquired taste. It really needs a flavor compliment, and this soup had none.
A thai chicken wrap suffered from a similar problem. I loved the texture of the thick tortilla-like wrap filled with rice and chicken. But the wrap, the rice, and the chicken were utterly devoid of spice and flavor. Instead, the wrap's flavor depended on a sauce, billed as "spicy Thai peanut sauce." Yet it lacked spice, and did not taste much like a real Thai peanut sauce. It tasted more like a sweet peanut butter vinaigrette. The dish would have been helped immensely by including some fresh herbs (especially cilantro) or some real Thai spices.
A "mediterrean" (sic.) plate also consisted of great textures, but disappointing flavor. The biggest disappointment was tabouli. Usually one of my favorite salads, traditional tabouli consists of about 95% parsley plus some lemon juice, olive oil, onion, and sometimes garlic, tomatoes, or bulgur wheat. Yet the key flavor is parsley, which is sharp, bitter, and refreshing. But when tabouli migrated to American health food restaurants in the 1970s, something got lost in translation. These restaurants tend to replace the 95% parsley with 95% bulgur wheat, stripping the dish of its flavor, as well as most of its vitamins. Dharma's tabouli is almost all bulgur; you have to pick around to find any parsley.
Other items on the mediterrean plate are a bit better: hummus (a little heavy on the tahini and light on the chickpeas), olives, tomatoes, and an interesting salad of marinated carrots.
The Problem with "Health Foods"
Dharma's Cafe's problem is suffered by some dishes at other local health food restaurants, including Whole Foods Cafe, Hobbit Cafe, A Moveable Feast, and Ziggy's Healthy Grill.
I suppose I could get used to eating dishes with so little spices, so little herbs, and so little flavor. But why do that? I like real ethnic foods with big flavors. I know how to cook food that is healthy, without tasting austere. For instance, even if you have to avoid salt, you can brighten flavors with other methods, such as lemon juice. The chefs at all these restuarants need to trash their Moosewood Cookbooks, abandon their throwback hippie recipes, and use the internet to find some modern healthy recipes with real flavor.
Despite this complaint, I would hang out frequently at Dharma Cafe if I lived in the neighborhood. I really like the place. I hope it survives. I also hope someone buys Dharma a spice cabinet.