Shane Carpenter
THE MADISON VALLEY'S Cafe Flora has plenty to offer, with its attractive, healthy, and satisfying vegetarian fare. The decor here is pleasant, with blond wood farm tables and fresh flowers at each dining station. Walls are warmly covered in deep colors, and understated indirect lighting, including neo-primitive fixtures with light shimmering through simple cut-outs, bathes diners in a gentle, sun-yellow glow. Remarkably soft acoustics greatly reduce the usual noisy irritants (slamming bus-pans full of dishes, clattering cutlery, loud voices). Eating should at least occasionally be a centered and nurturing experience, and Cafe Flora provides an environment compatible with such self-care.

If you like to start things off with a beverage, Cafe Flora has plenty to offer, placing an unusual and welcome spotlight on non-alcoholic refreshment. Sweet and tangy Wu-Wei Tea ($2 for a generous pot) contributes a ready feeling of self-confidence and jauntiness with its clove-lavender-lemon-licorice combo. Black, green, and oolong teas are also available, in various stages of ferment. The booze-heads among us inevitably choose a feisty little Chilean Cabernet, the Santa Rita Reserva 1997 ($5 a glass). The polite and well-mannered nose, coupled with just a hint of berry, underscores Cafe Flora's craftful wine-by-the-glass menu. Show us a restaurant with a decent wine-by-the-glass selection, and we'll show you our underpants.

Cafe Flora can, however, be a bit of a roller-coaster ride. Extremely ordinary rosemary rolls and "rustic" bread are most certainly nothing to jump up and down while clapping your hands about. The Roasted Beet Salad ($7.25) lacks any discernible roasted flavor, with soft, bland beets. Dare we whisper the word "canned"? Never, not here, but these lackluster dirt-dwellers are devoid of beets' usual verve.

The Winter Greens Salad ($8.95) soothes our hint of depression. This crazy, mixed-up jumble of life-affirming freshness (chard, kale, endive, wild rice, black lentils) brings us back into an erect and upright position, poking us in the tummy with a pumpkin seed and smoked paprika vinaigrette. Dried cranberries and feta cheese, mated with cleverly grilled apple slices, form the perfect exclamation point to this celebratory salad.

From the appetizer section, Coconut Tofu with Sweet Chili Sauce ($5.95) is a hoot, but may frighten some diners. Practically a parody of conservative eaters' fear of "health food," this dish prominently features giant lettuce leaves (as big as a large human head), which serve as wraps for the gustatorious tofu chunks, marinated and deep-fried with coconut breading. A careful count reveals that the number of lettuce leaves in the huge pile matches the number of tofu chunks. Unsure of how to apply the lettuce to the tofu cubes, we choose the traditional gift-wrapping method, bundling up the tofu in greenery. With added basil and cilantro garnish, and dipped into the accompanying chili sauce, this earthy package is luscious. Fitting the tennis-ball-sized, lettuce-wrapped tofu chunk into the tiny sauce dish is a challenge, so be sure to bring a shoehorn.

Portobella Wellington ($14.95) and Oaxaca Tacos ($13.95) are both unmitigated stunners. The Wellington, done in a deeply rich Madeira sauce, reminds us of beef's true redundancy. Grilled portobella mushrooms, mushroom-pecan pâté, and sautéed leeks are wrapped and baked in flaky puff pastry, and damned if the whole thing doesn't taste downright, er, meaty. Served with real carrots, firm pattypan squash, and creamy mashed potatoes, this is one satisfying entrée, and one of the most popular. Lesser establishments would do well to learn from the inventiveness and creativity of this dish.

Oaxaca Tacos ($13.95), with potato innards, are more authentically Mexican than some might think. Billed as "roasted flutes," these flutes are the biggest around. Corn tortillas are filled with spicy mashed potatoes, cheddar and smoked mozzarella cheeses, then topped with crème fraîche and zesty feta cheese. A pico de gallo with fresh, firm tomatoes has the power to bring light where there is darkness; but with the place's snazzy lighting, this is, of course, moot. Even with the occasional misfire, Cafe Flora, like the Oaxaca Tacos, has flair, integrity, and soul.

Cafe Flora

2901 E Madison, 325-9100. Brunch: Sat-Sun 9 am-2 pm. Lunch: Tues-Fri 11:30 am-2:30 pm. (Light menu available 2:30-5 pm.) Dinner: Tues-Thurs 5-9 pm, Fri-Sat 5-10 pm, Sun 5-9 pm. Closed Mon. Beer and wine. $$.

Price Scale (per entrée)

$ = $10 and under; $$ = $10-20; $$$ = $20 and up