Restaurant Reviews

A Natural Innocence

It's always a letdown when the waiter in a quaint picture-perfect café hands out a slipshod piece of paper that passes as a menu. First thing most of us do is turn it over to see if there's anything else written on the other side. Artichoke's is the antithesis: The 50-seat restaurant is homey but homely, while the menu is a picturesque spiral notebook, four laminated pages with vivid colorful photos of red peppers, black cherries, yellow lemons, and green mint leaves. Of greater consequence the contents within offer a similarly bright mix of healthful foods cooked fresh to order -- 105 of them to be exact, none of which contains red meat.

The room may be nothing to look at, but there's a lot to look at in the room. From the ceiling hang large model airplanes and a Plexiglas shelf lined with souvenir knickknacks, like a tacky little Eiffel Tower and flag-holding statuettes -- gifts given to owner Dick Suscart Eng (who learned a thing or two about the benefits of a healthy diet while working in the nutrition unit of Jackson Memorial Hospital). Under the glass tops that lay over linen tablecloths are index cards with handwritten sayings too trite to repeat -- if you're lucky, that is. Cards on other tables are marked with “Children's Letters to God”; the one in front of me is from a Seymour with wobbly penmanship asking, “How come you used to perform so many miracles but now you don't do them anymore?” The walls are mostly covered with landscape paintings of the type found in the waiting rooms of dentists. Yet the overall ambiance is warm and welcoming, and the space manages to charm in an innocent manner.

So do the waiters, a young, earnest, eager-to-please crew whose swiftness and amiability make up for their lack of polish. Food isn't exactly refined either, but it is nutritionally sound, a global mix of chicken, fish, vegetables, and salads. Chicken entrées range from Hawaiian pineapple to Hong Kong noodle to Cajun to curry to schnitzel to au poivre. There also are hot-and-spicy selections such as garlic pepper chicken, a not-very-piquant Oriental stir-fry of crunchy red pepper strips and soft nuggets of chicken breast with mushrooms, onions, and sprightly green peas. Part of Artichoke's appeal is that you can indulge in foods that are thoroughly satiating, or in a light dinner of plainly grilled chicken breast with steamed vegetables.

For a place that touts itself as a “natural food restaurant,” there are just a handful of dishes with those health/diet stalwarts: tofu and tempeh. One of them, tofu dumplings, is simply superb, thin noodle wrappings plumped with a ricotta-textured filling of tofu, matzo meal, sour cream, and horseradish. Two white porcelain cups come on the side, one with low-sodium soy, the other with very hot, very red chili sauce. Another recommended appetizer is the savory spinach-and-breadcrumb-stuffed whole artichoke with a tangy honey mustard dip for the leaves. This particular choke had a lot of heart, one of the meatiest I've ever encountered.

Meals are very well priced, from $9.95 to $14.95, and include a crisp house salad with miso dressing or salt-and-oil-free soup of the day; on one occasion the featured soup was white bean with a robust tomato-vegetable-based broth. Starch is served on a side plate, too, be it brown rice, baked potato (sweet potatoes on Mondays), or pasta. Let's hope little Seymour didn't pick the last, sticky linguini with a middling marinara sauce, as that would only have burdened him with yet another disappointment to ponder. Brighten up, kid -- Artichoke's is no miracle but the freshness, healthfulness, and affordability of its food can make you feel pretty good just the same.