Noble Intentions, Varied Results
2614 NE 55th St, 522-3011
Thurs-Sun 11 am-10 pm.
It's hard to make a restaurant organic. Most places I've worked have made an effort to use organic ingredients, but the old bugbears of inconsistent supply, quality, and above all, high prices, makes it hard to commit to the agenda. Even when I worked at Chez Panisse, a beacon of the organic food movement in the United States, we still relied on conventionally grown wines, olive oils, and the occasional pesticide-happy shallot.
In that regard, the Sterling Cafe in Ravenna has a very noble goal. It's one of only three restaurants in the United States to be certified by the USDA as organic: Everything they serve from spices to meat to beer has been raised without pesticides, antibiotics, or chemicals. As a mission statement in its copious menu dourly warns: "We are slowly killing ourselves and our planet. We must make a change, and are doing that one dish at a time." Eager not to continue killing ourselves, Andrew and I ate there recently with our friends.
There's something decidedly inorganic about the restaurant's aesthetic, both in its décor and its food. One enters through the next-door salon, also owned by Don and Rosie Wilson--somehow the very suggestion of blow-dried hair and toenail polish puts off one's appetite. The dining room is kept dim, but it is streaked with light from the harshly lit salon and kitchen. The walls are half clad with mauve Formica, and the simple cafe tables are fussily set with black polyester placemats and plastic roses.
Like the décor, the food seems a little lost in time--approximately 1982--although sometimes the sheer quality of the hard-won organic ingredients trumped everything. Though they circled charmlessly around a pile of shredded iceberg lettuce, garlicky prawns ($13.50) were fresh and succulent, so much more alive than the frozen shrimp that I pick at in most restaurants. So too, a pair of ungainly crab cakes ($12), which tasted far better than they looked: an outrageously generous portion of sweet Dungeness bound with a garlicky mayonnaise. Hot slices of ciabatta ($5) served with sugary, molten cloves of roasted garlic made me think we were headed for an all-out, stinky-sweat garlic overload, but then the entrées proved more temperate.
Having been on a big natural-burger kick recently, I was eager to try Sterling's (for beef to be organic, not only must the cows eat a vegetarian diet, but all of their feed must be organically grown too--a very pricy operation). The patty was a little overwhelmed by its toppings (mostly because Andrew couldn't resist adding bacon for $2 and avocado for $1), but the flesh was fine and a little winy, the ciabatta bun toothy but soft enough to hold the sandwich together.
On the other hand, our friend's sausage and zucchini lasagna ($15.50) was overburdened with heavy noodles and cheese. Her husband's steak ($37.50) was ably cooked, but poorly trimmed, with a little peninsula of gristle hanging off the rib eye. My salmon ($27.50) was served poached--you don't see that much these days--with a sauce choron, a pinky, peppered hollandaise and a decidedly uncreamy risotto. For an organic restaurant, Sterling showed a surprisingly awkward hand with vegetables--they seemed obligatory. Both surf and turf came arbitrarily garnished, with the kind of overworked vegetables that one reads about in hotel school cookbooks but one really never encounters these days: a bland tomato stuffed with bland broccoli; wagon wheels of steamed sweet potato sprinkled with dill; and duchesse potatoes, mashed, then piped in insouciant swirls and rebaked. Only the potatoes filled the bill, they were indeed, as our nice, somewhat nervous waitress described, "pillowy."
For dessert we tried a free-form apple tart--sautéed apples capped with a square of crisp puff pastry. It was functional, if not compelling. "That's what you need, I suppose," said our friend in his Leicester accent, "a little sweet, a little crunch, and that's it." But functional food isn't really enough when you're dining out.
There is a German word--unheimlichkeit--used by Freud and art critics to mean uncanny, but really it translates as un-home-like-ness. I was struck by the un-home-like-ness of Sterling Cafe, and how that came into conflict with its admirable goal as a globe-healing restaurant. What the Sterling Cafe needs now is a sense of homey joy, or it will find customers seeking out restaurants that are less organic, but more wholesome.