This perception isn't completely based in fantasy: During the apex of the "whole foods" movement of the early 1980s, I worked in a macrobiotic restaurant owned by a stringent, grim-faced macro zombie creep. A rogues' gallery of aging hippies frequented the place; they were zealot macrobiotics who took themselves -- and their diets -- way too seriously. Occasionally an unwary diner stumbled in, ordered a tempeh burger and hurried the hell out to get away from the proselytizing owner. (The owner later fired me for surreptitiously eating M&Ms while setting up the salad bar. "Chocolate is poison!" he screamed.)
Over the years, I've watched vegetarian restaurants come and go in Kansas City. Remember the Amber Waves Cafe? The Manna House? In the middle of the Plaza's jungle of corporate restaurants, the iconoclastic Eden Alley survives thanks to a good sense of humor and an eclectic menu. And then there's The Bluebird Bistro, which has taken over the space formerly occupied by the Bluebird Cafe.
Though it's been nearly four months since they bought the place from founder Kathy Marchant, new owners Jane Zieha-Bell and Susan Rowzee haven't yet replaced the Bluebird Cafe sign. Still, it's a whole new place. With Rowzee, a veteran pastry chef, and her boyfriend, John Welsh, overseeing the tiny kitchen, the food has become so tasty that even my friend Bob, a cranky carnivore, calls it "one of my new favorite places."
That's partly because he can order a steak! Okay, it's organic, "nonhormonal" beef, according to one of the staff members. Free-range chicken and fish inhabit the menu as well -- and soon to come, lamb. That may horrify the vegan contingent, people who don't consume anything born with eyes (although that apparently doesn't include potatoes). But my vegan friend Alethea wasn't that keen on the old Bluebird Cafe's cuisine, anyway. "There wasn't a lot of creativity," she said. "In fact, the food was boring."
For nonvegetarians like me, "boring" was an understatement. The place looked sunny and fresh, while the food had all the allure of molded sawdust. Even the veggie burger (which has been excised from the new menu) tasted neither veggie nor burger, but like a home ec project gone awry.
I knew things had taken a turn for the better on my first visit, when I walked in and saw an unexpected face hauling salads and pasta bowls out of the kitchen: wisecracking Brenda Smith -- waitress, astrologer and jazz singer -- an old pal from my own hash-slinging days.
"Don't worry, the food's good here," Brenda whispered as she escorted us to a cozy little table in the building's main room, which still boasts the cool tile floors and high pressed-tin ceiling from its first incarnation, a 1900s drugstore. There went my restaurant-reviewer's anonymity, but I decided if I hated the restaurant after eating there -- as I expected I would -- I'd just avoid Brenda for the next few years.
During the dinner hour, the standard single-page menu -- six entrées, a couple of salads and some pasta offerings -- is accompanied by six or seven daily specials. On separate visits, Bob and Alethea had the same initial reaction to the Asian eggplant dip, an appetizer served as a swirl of glossy brown purée. "It looks like baby poop," Bob said, shuddering. He had to be goaded into dipping a sliver of toasted bread into the spicy, gingery concoction sprinkled with fresh bits of basil and chives. Alethea was a convert after one bite, but Bob was more comfortable with a bowl of herbed hummus, lusciously oily and lemony. And he was even happier with the fat, papery bulb of roasted garlic, which arrived steaming, its tender cloves easily spread, like butter, on a piece of hearth-baked bread.
That bread comes from a tiny bakery around the corner -- just one sign that the urban neighborhood, which now boasts other tiny restaurants, a tattoo parlor, a coffee house and a hair salon, is continuing its renaissance. We devoured lots of the hearty, crusty bread along with inspired salads: soft red butter lettuce piled with strawberries and walnuts in a fig vinaigrette and a house salad of mixed greens, crumbled blue cheese and candied onion in a dressing flavored with a hint of fresh blueberry.
As I dug into a summery salad of chopped cantaloupe, strawberries and slices of golden kiwi in a strawberry and blood orange vinaigrette, I recounted for Alethea the building's amazing history. "It spent the first third of the century as a drug store, then became a billiards parlor during World War II. And after the war, it became a neighborhood diner: first the Good Food Cafe, then Pearl's Cafe." By the time our dinners arrived -- beef tenderloin for me, a golden jumble of curly cavatappi pasta in a sauce of roasted yellow peppers for Alethea -- I had traced it only up to the 1960s, the building's godly years, when it was home to the Baptist Welfare Association and, later, the Spiritualist Church.
The tender grilled hunk of beef definitely elevated my spirits, although the savory timbale of bread pudding, baked with fresh rosemary and parmesan, was too dry. I poked a fork into Alethea's pasta, which was delicately peppery and heaped with fava beans and slices of pattypan squash. It was divine, she said, "and totally vegan."
On my earlier visit with Bob, I had greedily devoured a breaded, sautéed black grouper, served hot and crispy on a bed of rice around a puddle of cream sauce laden with fresh corn and bits of hot pepper. Totally unvegan, but I didn't give a damn -- I was there to lustily enjoy food, not prolong my life for ten minutes.
Alethea downed the dregs from her goblet of Merlot while I sipped coffee and listened to Brenda rattle off the list of desserts, a litany of fresh fruit concoctions. "Don't you have anything chocolate?" I whined. "And not that awful, dry, veg-o-matic excuse for a brownie out in the display case. I've had better from Duncan Hines!"
"If you want chocolate, honey," Brenda said, "we've got what you want."
She vanished and returned with a rectangle of chocolate pastry layered with creamy ganache, floating on a pool of fresh raspberry purée. "It's our chocolate cloud cake."
It had me on cloud nine, although I felt a twinge of regret for poor Alethea, who looked wistfully at the gorgeous dessert. "I can't taste it," she said. "It has eggs in it."
I nearly dropped my fork (do yolks have eyes, I wondered?) and offered to order her one of the fruit desserts, but she demurred: Since turning vegan, she does not crave sweets anymore.
But what is life without dessert? We endure too many other assaults on our sanity, I told Alethea, without having to think about food as a potential enemy, filled with hidden chemicals, hormones, eggs and eyes.
"I respect your stance as a vegan," I said, waving a forkful of cake for emphasis, "but a world without chocolate cake would be like a world without art, music or sex."
And at The Bluebird Bistro, diners get the best of all worlds: red meat, fresh vegetables and chocolate. And art -- original paintings on the walls. And music: A different band plays every Wednesday. The sex is up to you.