Monday, December 03, 2007

Dharma Cafe - good karma, needs spice

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.

Nice Digs

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.

Hip Drinks

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.


Robin Goldstein said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Have you tried us recently...? We actually usually get the opposite complaint...people expect us to be more bland. Try the Ziggy nachos or one of our daily soups or the savory shortbread cookies at the bar.

Ziggy's Healthy Grill

anonymouseater said...

That is a fair comment about Ziggy's. I have been going there since it first opened, and of the four restaurants identified, Ziggy's has the highest percentage of tasty dishes. The ostrich burger is great, and the sweet potato fries may be the best in town. But on my most recent visit to the new location, the soup of the day was bland, lacking in salt or spice, and a Greek salad was good, but not interesting. Overall, though, Ziggy's rises a bit above the genre.

Anonymous said...

I eat at A Moveable Feast on about a weekly basis (it's right by my office and I can get lazy...), so I have to disagree about the blandness of their food. I've always been happy with anything I've ordered, even with the little prepackaged sandwiches. But to each their own.

I'm looking forward to trying the new Dharma location, though!


anonymouseater said...

I discuss A Moveable Feast more (and more positively) in an earlier post. I usually can find something decent there. And suppose I could get used to eating that sort of food, as you have, on a regular basis. But I actively seek out Houston's best restaurants, whether they be gourmet, authentic ethnic dives, or great comfort food. In comparison, most of the dishes at Houston's health food restaurants lack flavor -- which is a shame because it is possible to make food that is both healthy and flavorful.

Anonymous said...

Dharma Cafe is missing a dose of salt? Are you serious? That is one horrible insult to any restaurant. I have eaten at Dharma Cafe, and I find it to be perfectly salted. Perhaps you view salt as a spice, instead of a flavour enhancer. Well, to each their own.

anonymouseater said...

psjj -- My main point is not that Dharma Cafe lacks salt. (Nor would that be a "horrible insult" if it were my point.) My larger point was "every dish I tried lacks flavor." I prove my point by walking through the various dishes I tried and explaining how they were stripped of flavor: the bread lacked salt; the Thai sauce lacked Thai elements and tasted more like peanut butter; the eggplant soup had no flavor but eggplant. If you want to prove that some of their dishes have flavor, please give me some counter examples. I like the feel of the place and would love to find one tasty dish I can enjoy there. Please show me that I'm wrong.

Anonymous said...

Try the Shrimp Mojo. I beg to differ on your opinion of saying that a restaurant lacks salt. I get your main idea. Their pasta specials are always spectacular. You should try the dinner service. The problem with many of these international dishes is that most people would not appreciate true authentic flavors because of the different palate. Sometimes you have to reach a middle ground.

Anonymous said...



anonymouseater said...


Please try a little experiment. Google "bread ingredients." Pull up the first 20 listings you see. Notice something interesting? EVERY BREAD RECIPE HAS SALT!!!

Outside of Tuscany, it is rare to find bread without salt. One local restaurant, T'afia, makes bread without salt. But they serve the bread with a little bowl of sea salt.

Like I said in an earlier comment, my main complaint is not the the lack of salt. It is the lack of flavor. There are many different ways to add flavor to a dish -- salt, spice, herbs, flavorful ingredients. I just wish Dharma had more flavor.

I hope to go back soon and try the Shrimp Mojo, or perhaps some other dish. The food may be more flavorful now. I hope so. I want this funky little place to succeed.

Anonymous said...

i agree salt is not a spice,,,,get a life. You are right bread has salt in it but too much salt is disgusting. That is why there are salt shakers on the table for freaks that want to drown there food in salt.

Anonymous said...

Don't bet your life on it. The food here lacks everything. There are some things I like, but they are creations of the Chef there called Alberto. The other night I heard John curse out one of his employees...I dislike rude people. I only wonder what will happen when Alberto leaves. That should be interesting.