For a while my friend Beth worked around the corner from Café Gratitude. On busy days she would order a quick salad to go.
Beth gives the vegan restaurant, the first Café Gratitude to put down roots outside of the California home base, a thumbs-up. Yet she has a hard time saying “I want the I Am Gorgeous” — a salad of mixed greens, carrots, kale, cucumber, mint, basil, apples, figs and hemp seeds with a sesame ginger dressing — into the phone without feeling utterly ridiculous.
When we eat lunch together at Café Gratitude, she orders the practically monastic-sounding I Am Whole, a bowl of macrobiotic sea vegetables topped with a satisfyingly spicy house-made kimchee.
The hyperbolic menu names are not the least bit embarrassing for another friend who adores French restaurants and tends to wrinkle her nose at anyone who counts fat grams. She takes a polite pass when I suggest she might like the I Am Humble, a curried lentil dish with potatoes and spinach served over brown rice or quinoa. If the aphorism “you are what you eat” is true, she is not about to miss the opportunity to toot her own horn. She settles on I Am Terrific, which turns out to be a very palatable pad Thai-inspired dish featuring strands of raw kelp noodles that have a slight spring to them similar to standard seaweed salads served at sushi restaurants.
I look down at the Fiestaware-style bowls, which have “What are you grateful for?” inscriptions, and up at the self-serve etched water bottle at the center of the table bearing the word “happy.” (Later I would find out the take-out bags also include positive sentiments.) A rising tide of good vibrations and positive affirmations threatens to envelop us.
“Do you want to hear the question of the day?” our server asks, a take-it-or-leave-it lilt perceptible in her voice.
“Um, sure,” I reply, although I’m panicking inside, worried I Am Terrific is either going to break out into peals of hysterical laughter or bolt for the door.
“What makes you ridiculously happy?”
OK. Such earnestness works only if the food can stand up to the sentiment. And, happily, Café Gratitude is more than just another feel-good dining spot.
For omnivorous types, the biggest downfall of vegan restaurants is usually the chef’s inability to avoid gigging out on faux meat and dairy alternatives that are just that — alternatives, rather than ingredients that really stand on their own. You can argue whether cashew cheese is really cheese (it’s not), but it does have a familiar and pleasingly cheesy flavor and texture. Used sparingly, it works and seems interesting rather than drearily dogmatic.
By the time I invite Kathy and Roxanne to join me for lunch — they are professional home economists who create recipes for The Star’s Eating for Life column — we are dissecting ingredients and cooking (or raw) techniques.
The menu is organic, with some produce supplied by the Be Love Too farm in Edgerton, Kan., a property owned by Café Gratitude co-owner and Director of Awesomeness Natalie George and run by first-time farmers Steve and Andrea Myers. Other local contributing farmers include Boys Grow and Prairie Birthday Farms.
Words such as “raw,” “live” and “sprouted” dot the menu. Servers are happy to describe the terms in as much detail as you can stomach, but it’s not really necessary to understand the mechanics of vegan cooking to enjoy eating at Café Gratitude. A butterfly denotes raw items, and gluten-free options, when available, are noted in the menu description. However, this is not the place to go if you suffer nut allergies.
Most of the recipes come from Café Gratitude’s California kitchens and its branded cookbooks, although George says some of the recipes, such as the popular gluten-free buckwheat banana pancakes and the I Am Gorgeous salad, are Kansas City creations.
The dish that I saw coming out of the kitchen most often was the I Am Magical veggie burger on a sprouted wheat bun with a side salad. My guess is that the veggie burger is the safest bet for most diners, yet I think it is actually one of the least inspired.
Equally accessible and far more interesting are the I Am Trusting, a handmade corn tamale with seasonal vegetables with black beans and spicy Mexican coleslaw, and I Am Transformed, two seasonal corn tacos, among my favorites.
George later confirms I Am Transformed has become the local restaurant’s best-seller, followed by I Am Humble, I Am Magical and I Am Trusting. But the dish that changed George’s life — the I Am Fabulous, a raw lasagna — is, surprisingly, still in the works. George got her first taste of the lasagna from a to-go box while on an airplane back to Kansas City after a long business meeting in San Francisco in the days when she worked as a regional sales manager for Garmin. The affirmation scrawled on the box might have seemed corny to some, but George says it changed her life.
“As I ate each bite I had the mantra going through my head, and I realized it was the first time that I ate without being fearful of food,” George says.
Most days half a dozen desserts, although not listed on the menu because they change so fast, are available to keep that fabulous feeling going to the very end.
I sample several, including I Am Devoted, which is a satisfying coconut mousse of admirably creamy consistency considering it lacks a true dairy component. The two-toned hazelnut torte, referred to as I Am Bliss, is also subtly flavored and creamy, but I am less sure about the overwhelming bitterness of the raw cacao crust. Perhaps it’s something that grows on you.