Sunday, March 22, 2015


2203 S 39th Street , St. Louis, MO 63110
QISA (4, 4, 3, 4), Vegetarian

The artist-in-residence at the SweetArt family-owned bakeshop/café/art studio, changed his name from Clifford Miskell to Cbabi Bayoc. This new and completely made up name is an acronym that represents his personal philosophy on family, creativity, and community. Cbabi Bayoc stands for “Creative Black Artist Battling Ignorance – Blessed African Youth of Creativity”.

Some may see this as an affectation of pretentiousness, others as an affirmation of personal identity. Either way, I personally feel that the message is less important than the content itself. I like his art, plain and simple. He uses bright strokes and a slightly caricaturish style to convey positivity, personality, and real emotion. I want the man to draw a comic strip, only because I want to see what happens next with his characters.

SweetArt, the bakeshop and café run by his wife Reine, is a little like Cbabi’s art. Sure, there is an underlying philosophy and agenda driving the restaurant, but the food itself is what stands out. The treats are decadent (or at least taste that way), and the savory foods are creative and delicious. Not every dish hit the mark with me, but I had to admire the attempt.

The café’s SweetBurger is their top-selling item, a thick vegan patty of grains and lentils. The consistency of the burger is smooth and even, much more so than veggie patties at other restaurants which tend to be on the chunky side. I personally found the burger too sweet for my taste; I think it would have been improved by a saltier/spicier profile, but again, I admired the attempt.

I ordered the Make It Funky burger, which was the SweetBurger patty covered in house-made BBQ sauce, caramelized onions, organic mixed greens, vegan magic spread, vegan bacon, and vegan cheddar cheese. I could have ordered it with dairy cheddar cheese, but I figured "in for a penny, in for a pound." I wanted the full vegan experience. The Make It Funky was tasty but messy. The burger fell over before I took my first bite, and I found myself using a knife and fork to tackle its contents. Luckily, the sandwich came with a stack of napkins.

The side of dressed kale salad, however, was a pleasant surprise. The mix of kale, carrot, and cabbage in the peanut sauce was surprisingly good. The salad maintained a cole slaw-like crunch, but the tang of the sauce covered the bitter taste of the kale without overpowering the other vegetables. I could eat this stuff on a daily basis.

The café menu was definitely creative, and I would love to come back to try some of their other dishes, such as the vegan palak paneer pie in a phyllo crust. No, I don’t know what is in it, but I love palak paneer and I love spanakopita. The marriage of the two sounds brilliant. Or it could be a failure. But I give them points for trying.

The real focus of SweetArt is the bakery. They make a point of using the best ingredients (e.g. Plugra butter, Valrhona cocoa, and Callebaut chocolate) to create delicious treats. Note, I did not say healthy treats, I said delicious treats. I ordered a salted chocolate caramel cupcake which was just as decadent as it sounds. The buttercream frosting was light and not overdone or overstacked, the cake was moist and much better than most high-end cupcakes, and the pairing of the cake and icing was done artfully with a caramel drizzle. This was a cupcake made to be eaten, not made to be displayed.

I had difficulty deciding on the final QISA score. I debated internally whether to rate the Quality of the restaurant as a 3.5 or a 4. The sweetness of the SweetBurger unbalanced the culinary experience, leaving a slightly off taste in my mouth. I needed an outside, unbiased judge to help me decide. So I brought some vegan rice krispie treats home with me.

“You have got to go back to St. Louis!” my youngest son informed me after devouring his. “We need to get more of these. You have to find out how they made them!”

Four it is.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Harmonie Garden

Harmonie Garden
4704 Third St., Detroit, MI
QISA (4.5, 4, 3, 3.5), $4-8, Vegetarian-Friendly

So, there we were, lost in the middle of the Detroit urban jungle, huddling for safety and warmth. My traveling companion and I slept in shifts, hiding under the torn sheet of stained cardboard, trying desperately to ignore the gunshots and screams punctuating the night. For the most part, the locals left us alone, save for the two large, mangy vagrants who accosted us at knifepoint. We distracted one with our last tapioca pudding, the other with a swift kick to the groin.

In the morning, we emerged from our hiding place, blinking into the sunlight. Looking for respite and safety, we stumbled into the first restaurant we could find. I’ll be damned if they didn’t have the best falafel I’ve eaten in years.

Okay, so maybe my discovery of Harmonie Garden was not nearly so frought with excitement and adventure, but our decision to eat there was in fact borne out by happenstance and impulse, not careful planning. I was traveling with my coworker “B,” and we chose the restaurant somewhat randomly. Since I was organizing our meetings in Detroit that day, my reputation was on the line. I was selecting a restaurant with no advanced access to online reviews, Michelin ratings, or menus.

Luckily, the risk matched the reward. Harmonie Garden, a converted bar on the Wayne State campus, is a wonderfully inventive Middle Eastern restaurant. The menu is filled with vegetarian choices, but it is the breadth of falafel dishes that stand out. These include falafel in pita, arabi falafel, fala burger (falafel on a burger bun), fala San Fran, Falamankoush (za’atar pie stuffed with veggies and falafel), Flobby Joe (falaburger with veggie chili and tahini), falafel stir fry, falamelt, and BBQ falafel. Other vegetarian dishes include Mujadara (lentils and bulgher served with crispy onions), Za’atar Pie (savory pastry coated with za’atar spice, and filled with veggies and Syrian cheese), vegetarian grape leaves, and Mujadara spinach melt (onions, lentils, spinach, melted cheese, hummus, and tahini).

B was as big a fan of Middle Eastern food as I was, so we settled in for a major lunch feast. I started with a cup of crushed lentil soup. The soup was not overly salty or spicy, but it sported an appropriate level of umami flavor and hearty mouth feel.

B ordered a plate of hummus and pita, which she thankfully shared with me so I didn’t have to make whimpering puppy dog eyes at her. The pita bread came wrapped in plastic, and was thin but very soft. The plate of hummus was decorated with olive oil, spices, tomatoes, and pickles. I am not engaging in hyperbole when I say it was possibly the best hummus I’ve ever eaten, and this from a man who makes his own hummus at home.

We shared an order of veggie and cheese samosas. I enjoyed the veggie samosas; they tasted like a slightly blander version of traditional Indian samosas. The cheese samosas tasted like mini calzones. Although they were good, very good in fact, the Italian and Indian flavors seemed incongruous with the rest of the meal.

I ordered the arabi falafel, which was a grilled falafel sandwich on pita bread, stuffed with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and hummus. The plate included four sandwiches, each about three to five inches across. The falafel were spiced, fried, and shaped perfectly, with the absolute right consistency inside and out. Needless to say, I was in my happy place.

The prices at Harmonie Garden are incredibly reasonable, with most sandwich plates ranging from $4 to $8. One can eat very cheaply there and still take home plenty for lunch the next day. Or for breakfast. I don’t judge.

Most importantly, B was impressed with my choice of restaurant. After two days of me setting up meetings with doctors, organizing travel, and waxing poetic on the finer points of clinical trial design, my high risk, high reward lunch spot was simply the pièce de resistance.

I suppose fending off a vagrant with a swift kick and a tapioca cup didn’t hurt either.