To your health

At the new Dream Cafe, 'good food' has only one meaning

It's not only humans who have to watch what they eat: My cat Ed was recently diagnosed as obese. The average full-grown male cat weighs 12, maybe 15 lbs. Eddie weighs 22, perfectly dry.

Perhaps he lacks that chemical signal that tells his brain when he is "full." Perhaps he is trying to cover feelings of inadequacy with a layer of fat. Perhaps he was fat as a kitten, and everyone knows that once you have those fat cells, they never go away. Anyway, Ed's problems are easily solved by switching one kibble for another. People, of course, are more complicated, and so are their diets. What's "good" for us to eat is something discussed endlessly, revised officially every few years, and then mostly ignored anyway.

Dream Cafe, which just opened a second restaurant in Oak Cliff, was for a long time Dallas' premier natural-foods restaurant, specializing in food that's "good" for you. It's still listed that way in restaurant guides. "Natural" food is what succeeded Adelle Davis-style hard-core health food as the kind of food that's truly "good" for you.

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In its early days, Dream Cafe's menu featured lots of tofu, veggies, and sprouts, fare that really challenges you to eat what's "good" for you. But even then, there were enough actually delicious dishes on the menu (especially at breakfast) to make you feel good about eating well. And now, eating at Dream Cafe makes you realize the quality of dinner and the quality of life are finally starting to converge in this country.

The Victorian American idea (that made millions in Battle Creek) that gustatory humiliation equals good health is fading. The Puritan philosophical axiom, "If it tastes bad, it must be good for you" (and vice versa) is finally losing a little of its hold on the American palate. The truth, we are beginning to realize, is that the better food tastes, the more likely it is to be good for you. Unpolluted, fresh, and freshly prepared food tastes better than frozen, reconstituted, retextured food.

The new Dream Cafe is in a space on Zang (just over the bridge) so plain it could be called the Snooze Cafe. The beige walls, small art, and stained concrete floors add up to less than interior design. The entire dining room looks unfinished, and the hard surfaces make it surprisingly noisy for a small space. The first night we ate there was one of those frigid spring nights, and every time the door opened, a gust of cold air hit our booth.

So, at least at this point, I'd say that ambiance at the Dream Cafe is, if not a nightmare, certainly forgettable. Still, the place was full, which could tell you something about the restaurant scene in Oak Cliff.

We started with grilled corn cakes, an American take on the Thai favorite featuring patties of corn kernels mixed with meal and seasoned with Thai curry. By themselves, they were probably healthful and filling, and that's about all you could say. But that's not all there was on the plate. This was a textbook example of the importance of composing, not just serving, a plate of food.

Grilled shrimp rested on peanut-sauced greens next to the little brown corn cakes. This was a dish where the elements were all there--the slightly smoky taste of the firm shrimp flesh, the thin, sharp-tasting green leaf, the comforting sweet bulk of the grain, all overlaid with the sweet-hot coating of oil, peanuts, and pepper. If you carefully built a bite, spearing a piece of shrimp, catching a leaf, and scooping up some corn cake all on one fork, well, then you had a great mouthful. But the arrangement on the plate left the composition of such a sensation up to the imagination of the diner. The kitchen left its last task undone and allowed too many diners to eat each element separately, missing the real goodness of the dish.

Another appetizer, the so-called "grilled napoleon," was a more complete conception. Fancifully named after the layered French pastry, this prettily presented napoleon layered grilled vegetables--eggplant, peppers, squash, onion--with slices of fresh Dallas mozzarella. The whole tower was skewered with a branch of fresh rosemary, heated till the cheese melted, and served with a coulis-type tomato sauce. The ingredients melded together--the soft cheese was a perfect foil for the vegetables--but each element held its own flavor.

Dream's Caesar salad was a surprisingly heavy version--pay attention, those of you who equate "good" with "light"--the romaine lettuce covered with a rich, garlicky dressing and lots of grated asiago cheese.

There were some disappointments when it came to the entrees. By 7:30, the kitchen had sold out of the pork-medallion special, by far the most appealing possibility. Our waiter told us he "thought" the kitchen was out of mashed potatoes. The cold air that caused us to yearn for pork made us feel a little pushy about mashed potatoes. "You think so?" we pressed him. "Well," he explained, "we were out of them last night."

Faced with our incredulous faces, he retreated to the kitchen for a current potato update. Turns out the kitchen had the single serving of the a la carte mashed potatoes we ordered, but the pan-fried chicken's accompaniment of goat-cheese mashed potatoes was replaced by mashed sweet potatoes. The chicken--gold-crusted, juicy, and tender--was good, but the potatoes were lukewarm, and I can't say the sauce was an improvement over pan gravy.

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