There aren't many dining rooms in Kansas City that drip with the milk of human kindness. Café Gratitude is practically swimming in it — along with coconut, hazelnut and almond milk (never cow's). The first licensed Midwest outpost of the popular California haven for vegan, organic and raw food opened its doors in May, and its attractive serving crew radiates the beatific glow of new apostles.
"I'm so excited to be working here," gushed the pretty young waitress attending our table on my first visit to the restaurant. Hey, great, good for you. But there was more: "It sort of goes along with where I am spiritually in my life. It's the right place for me to be."
I usually recoil from this kind of candor, but this young woman was so sincere, so unabashed, that I couldn't look away from her long enough to roll my eyes. I had come to try the food and been confronted with an avatar of purely good intentions.
I don't want to say her efforts on me were wasted, but I'm certainly on the more cynical side of the vegan-restaurant patronage spectrum. At Café Gratitude, you can practically see the cheery, positive ions circulating through the air. And I can see those ions bouncing right off me in search of a more absorbent customer.
A part of me would like to embrace each server announcing to his or her table a "question of the day" or messages like a sentence printed on the menu: "Our food and people are a celebration of our aliveness." But I've been there, done that. I worked in a macrobiotic restaurant for a couple of years and piously extolled the virtues of alfalfa sprouts and organic apple juice — until I was fired for sneaking a Little Debbie Swiss Roll. (Sometimes aliveness demands sugar.)
Café Gratitude would be a first-rate restaurant without all the holistic hoopla. Yes, the menu asks that you "step inside and enjoy being someone who chooses: loving your life, adoring yourself, accepting the world, being generous and grateful every day, and experiencing being provided for," as though Oprah is making your dinner. But there are smartly made, flavorful items here that can't be had elsewhere (or easily undertaken at home), and that's worth a little pressure to re-avow one's self-worth.
I didn't walk out of the restaurant adoring myself, but I did adore the weird thrill of getting a flattering affirmation every time a new dish or beverage came to the table. It's one thing to request an espresso-flavored, dairy-free (and memorably delicious) milkshake, "I Am Eternally Blessed" — everything at Café Gratitude is called "I Am" something or other — but it's another when a shiny, happy server sets it in front of you and proclaims, "You are Eternally Blessed." I wasn't sure whether to sip the concoction or cross myself with it as if it contained holy water.
If something godly is in any of these beverages (and there are a lot of beverages), it's the I Am Immortal, which might be even more bracing served in a chalice rather than the oversized mug that usually holds it. I Am Immortal is a powerful liquid, described on the menu as an "immune system enhancing, consciousness expanding, ancient tonifying elixir." It's made with reishi, shilajit and ormus (God only knows, I thought), and so heavily dusted with ground cinnamon that the warm, umber brew can nearly pass as a highly aggressive cocoa. "Shilajit is a mineral," announced my server that afternoon. (Later I learned that reishi is a medicinal mushroom, whereas ormus is "orbitally rearranged monoatomic elements.") It's a pleasant, soothing drink, but I think my immune system got a more potent punch from the jigger of freshly juiced wheatgrass I'd ordered before deciding I wanted to live forever. Yes, wheatgrass tastes lousy, but everything's more intoxicating served in a shot glass.
Powered up with shilajit and ormus, I was ready to take on the world. Or at least lunch. I'm a fan of Café Gratitude's sprouted-almond hummus ("I Am Connected"), served with chewy "raw" crackers (dehydrated, not baked), though it's a shade salty. When the server tired of my questions about each dish's ingredients (in this case: soaked almonds, soaked sunflower seeds, raw tahini), she engaged her inner shaman and brought me something I'd wanted to see all my life: The Book of Knowledge. The wisdom contained within is specific to Café Gratitude, so I didn't discover the meaning of life. (How amusing it would be, however, if truly universal answers to life's codes really were tucked inside a lime-green, three-ring binder.) But an available-upon-request listing of the ingredients to a restaurant's every dish is an excellent idea, particularly for diners with severe food allergies. It's something that more places should consider. Meanwhile, the nut-averse should know that Café Gratitude's dishes tend to be heavy on cashew cheese and cashew ice cream, Brazilian nut cheese, and Thai almond dressing.
Because all of the ingredients here are organic, it's not unusual for the restaurant to run out of certain dishes. The corn tamale ("I Am Trusting") was not available on any of my three visits to the place. As one manager explained to me, "It's not like we can run to Price Chopper if we run out of something." That makes sense, I guess, but I was tempted to ask my server to run out and get me some real bacon after biting into Café Gratitude's spin on a BLT ("I Am Extraordinary"). The faux meat — crispy, chipotle-maple coconut "bacon" — tasted like a chewy hunk of Hawaiian candy topped with lettuce, tomato and avocado. Much, much better was the veggie burger, a patty of brown rice, quinoa, black beans, mushrooms and beets. But I think I liked it because it had been fried to the consistency of a falafel puck — high praise, if you ask me.
That burger ("I Am Magical") is particularly good with a creamy dollop of the dairy-free mozzarella, which has the texture of a fine, silky ricotta. And it's best alongside one of the place's big cashew milkshakes, all of which are far thicker than any dairy-based shake in town.
A vegetarian friend of mine was less than entranced by Café Gratitude's version of pad Thai, "I Am Terrific." It's a cold jumble of kelp noodles, shredded kale, cucumber, tomatoes, cilantro, mint and scallions in a light, tasty sauce made with almond butter, ginger juice, agave, cilantro and jalapeño-lemon juice. Though we both liked it a lot, my friend felt a little misled by the menu.
There are other surprises. The restaurant doesn't serve a vegan staple — soy products — in its dishes. "Most soy products in the United States are genetically modified," one waitress lectured me. And there's no liquor, but that's going to change when the owners get their liquor license. Organic beer and organic wine, of course. "Will those beverages be called 'I Am Intoxicated?' " I asked. The waitress frowned at my insolence, and I felt a twinge of shame. Just then, dessert arrived: a wonderfully tart Key lime pie in an almond crust, and a dense chocolate "mousse" that was more like a sweet pâté made with Irish moss, among other ingredients. (Moss mousse doesn't sound tempting, but it tastes good.)
The coffee was strong and good, so I assume it was the real thing and not some caffeine-free chickory alternative. I was sitting back, enjoying the java when our server returned and asked, expectantly, if we were ready to answer the question of the day. I had forgotten it.
"What would you like to be acknowledged for?" the young woman repeated, looking to each of us for a glimmer of intelligence. No one rose to the occasion (you don't have to answer out loud, the servers assure you, so it can be like a birthday wish mulled as the candles are lighted), and we left the matter behind altogether when we left the restaurant. I felt like we'd let Café Gratitude down, but it's a fact as sure as rice milk: Not everyone is up to the good intentions of this dining venue.
Don't get me wrong. I appreciate that Café Gratitude wants to change the world. And I'll be back — but just to eat.