When I finally reached the front of the breakfast line on an exceptionally busy Sunday morning at Garden Café—having had ample time to settle on an egg-and-chili plate, flirt with the idea of ordering a feta omelet and renew my vow to find out how well the cherished East Dallas eatery handles Southwestern flavors—the cheery counter woman met me with a warning.
"Food's taking at least 30 minutes to come out," she said with the trepidation of someone who'd already gotten an earful from customers on the cusp of a French toast crisis. "Is that going to be OK?"
Being forced to spend an extra half-hour drinking coffee and reading the newspaper on Garden Café's gently bohemian back patio, surrounded by its namesake blooming gardens, is definitely OK by me. While owner Dale Wootton's locavore philosophy is appealing, the vast majority of the restaurant's devoted fans succumbed first to the charms of its pastoral setting. The 7-year-old neighborhood café is housed in a squat white brick building, fronted by casement windows with bright white trim and hung with white curtains. There's a pristine playground across the street. If you squint at it, especially if it's well past dusk and you've had liquor with dinner—as was the situation when a knowing culinary informant first took me on a twisty drive to see it—it looks like the sort of restaurant you'd find in Berkeley or Portland or some other place where breakfasters care deeply about fair-trade green tea and don't stumble when they say "soysauge."
Garden Caf� Omelet $6.95 Sunrise plate $7.50 Veggie burger $7.50 Tuna salad $6.95 Chicken fried steak $7.95 Pecan pie $4 Coconut pie $4
There are clichés to cover what's happening at Garden Café: "'Funky' and 'off-the-beaten path' are the usual descriptions," the café's website concedes. But the restaurant this summer lightly jostled the usual, installing Wootton's 22-year old son Mark as manager and cook. Wootton the Younger hasn't yet been in the post long enough to make any significant changes, but his arrival seemed like a proper occasion for a reassessment of the restaurant, which has popped up on a number of Observer "Best of Dallas" lists.
Since I'm completely smitten with the café's casual, sunny ambiance, I'd probably go to Garden Café to eat sunflower seeds. (That snack isn't much more humble than the dishes actually on the menu at this breakfast-and-lunch-only spot. In addition to a short lineup of specials, two salads, two soups and six sandwiches are available, if you count a BLT and chicken BLT as two different sandwiches. Children have the choice of French toast, a pancake and grilled cheese.) But, if I had my druthers, Garden Café would redouble its emphasis on its garden, pruning the mass-produced and pre-made items from its pantry.
I'm hesitant to be hard on Garden Café, since it's doing such a lovely job with its homegrown ingredients. Any kitchen capable of wringing joyful flavors from cauliflower deserves commendation. Still, the restaurant has so much potential to be even better, evidence of which looms over its al fresco-dining guests. On more than one occasion, I had the impulse to rush into the thriving garden to pluck the herbs or vegetables that might help repair flawed dishes.
I'm fairly confident I could have found something back there to spruce up the fruit salad, which featured the depressingly predictable array of honeydew, cantaloupe, pineapple and grapes. The fruit tasted fresh—nothing was too hard or too mushy—but it's nearly impossible to serve that particular quartet and not summon memories of fruit salads served by corporate sandwich shops and hospital cafeterias. The salad could have been easily saved by a distinctive dressing, a well-chosen herb or an unexpected fruit. Instead, it was a lackluster accompaniment to a basic sandwich.
Another supporting salad—this one a dull mix of shredded iceberg, red cabbage and carrots that appeared on the breakfast plate of fried eggs, warm tortillas, beans and a Frito-garnished, rust-colored chili of finely ground beef that was more sauce than stew—also would have benefited from a bit of garden assistance. The lettuce and cabbage may very well have grown up under Garden Café's loving care, but they shouldn't have been subjected to the same treatment inflicted on every lettuce and cabbage head bound for a plastic bag of readymade salad fixings. If a preparation obliterates the just-picked taste of its ingredients, it seriously dims the romance of restaurant gardening.
Far better was a small cup of salsa served with the same plate. Elegantly spiced and rich with tomatoes, the thin salsa was good with everything, including dense cheese grits.
A side salad or fruit cocktail shouldn't spoil anybody's Garden Café experience, especially since there's potato salad to be had instead. Garden Café's rustic potato salad is a model of its genre. Tossed with just the right amount of mayonnaise, the cold salad features knobs of potatoes and the tiniest slivers of red and green bell peppers.
But Garden Café's most bothersome mistake can't be set right by judicious ordering or a garden trek. I'll say this as clearly as I can: Garden Café needs better bread.
The bread Garden Café uses for its sandwiches and toast is dispiriting, and sadly reminiscent of the foamy, flavorless bread I used to find in my school lunchbox. Bread should be more than a way to keep your chicken salad together: It's a good half of what you taste when you eat a sandwich. And with so much high-quality bread now available, there's no excuse for using less-than-stellar stuff—especially when the sandwich fillings are so good.
I liked every sandwich filling I sampled at Garden Café, including a chipper tuna salad with a satisfying celery crunch. Even more impressive was the black bean burger, which was closer kin to meatloaf than hamburger. Rather than just press pureed beans into a patty, the kitchen apparently adds bread crumbs and ketchup to its cumin-accented mix of whole black beans and corn kernels. The burger was hearty and delicious.
Sandwiches were more successful than the hot entrées I tried: A basic egg-and-cheese omelet was decent, if slightly overcooked. I was less fond of chicken-fried steak, a regular Thursday special: The cube steak, shoved into a coating of fry atop a stove, was cooked to a pinkish medium and suffused with the lingering tinge of burn. It was served with a misbegotten sweet-tasting gravy freighted with flour.
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Every daily special comes with two sides: The rotation includes a downy macaroni and cheese, faintly tangy and easy to eat, and a phenomenal cauliflower graced with butter, salt and pepper.
There's also a changing roster of house-made pies, seated in disconcertingly uniform crusts. A pecan pie, which had only a top layer of nuts to justify its name, was startlingly sweet, but a custardy coconut pie threaded with toasted coconut was terrific.
Garden Café is endearingly pleasant, and—for the most part—its food is too. The restaurant's just a loaf of bread away from becoming a top lunch destination. Here's hoping that when Mark Wootton gets more comfortable, he'll start making still smarter, garden-driven choices: That's also something for which I'm willing to wait.
Garden Café 5310 Junius St., 214-887-8330, gardencafé.net. Open 8 a.m.-2 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday. $