Potager Café: Communal Dining, Slow Food and Small Portions.
"This is so good," a wispy woman with a sloppy silver-white bun murmured to her dining partner at Potager Café.
"I know," the younger man nodded. "This is called Slow Food."
The Slow Food movement, which counts Potager Café's owner and omnipresence Cynthia Chippindale among its adherents, officially combats "the disappearance of local food traditions." By "local food traditions," Slow Foodists usually mean all those labor-intensive culinary practices that most sensible producers abandoned as soon as technology allowed. The Slow Food dreamscape is populated by cheery milk maids churning butter and ruddy fishermen cast-netting for menhaden.
But Potager Café is preserving a very different culinary tradition: The knockabout eatery is an unselfconscious salute to commune cookery, circa 1973. While the Arlington restaurant opened just last year, there's a time-warp quality to its crocheted window hangings and fresh, unfussy dishes—all of which would be appropriate contributions to a potluck held in support of nuclear disarmament. Whether or not you enjoy it probably depends on how fondly you recall heated debates in your co-op basement about the inherent patriarchy of drum circles.
In the interest of full disclosure, I feel I should reveal I'm a co-op veteran who's eaten her share of lentils. I grew up in Ann Arbor in the 1970s, a decade during which my hometown made headlines for decriminalizing pot and opening a high school where students went barefoot and smoked in the halls. I went to a college that prided itself on inventing coed dorms. So it's impossible for me to visit a place like Potager and not succumb to the same wave of nostalgia I suspect roadside steak joints and archaic clubhouse dining rooms evoke in eaters with less bohemian upbringings. Potager gets instant points from me for maintaining an earthy, politicized charm that's hard to find in Dallas.
That's not an indictment of the unobjectionable food, which is wholesome and plain. But it's not the saucy ratatouille or thick, buttery shortbread that makes Potager interesting: In keeping with the legacy of other earnest grassroots canteens, Potager distinguishes itself by putting philosophy ahead of cuisine. Heck, there's a giant peace sign wrapped in multicolored Christmas lights hanging over the front door.
Chippindale recently spelled out her philosophy as it relates to food in an application to become a delegate to Slow Food's international conference. Her goal at Potager is to "present people with food that is made of pure, natural ingredients, and let them have only as much as they know they can eat," she wrote. She's opposed to waste, additives, overpriced organics and brightly lit dining rooms. She's taken with "the different gifts of the soil that each season brings."
Conscientious eaters who share Chippindale's sentiments have formed a small community around her modest restaurant. If you keep nutritional yeast and Bragg's liquid aminos in your pantry, you're likely already a Potager regular. But I want to wish Potager on all the Dallas diners who complain about fashionable restaurants where the service is snooty, the food's too expensive and style's prized over substance.
None of that's a concern at Potager, because the restaurant has none of the above. There's no style to speak of, no service and no prices: The restaurant operates on a "pay what you think your meal's worth" system. There's a set of guidelines posted above the cash bucket, but it's up to customers to calculate their contribution.
The system works, partly because Chippindale's customers are good and kind, and partly because the portions at Potager are minuscule. Chippindale doles out the food from the restaurant's open kitchen, where customers line up and make their selections from a chalkboard of changing specials. There's always a green salad and a quiche, but the rest of the lineup varies according to farm deliveries. The menu often includes a meat dish, perhaps a pasta sauce or stew made from Burgundy Pasture beef, yet the kitchen doesn't use animal products promiscuously: The restaurant radiates vegan respect.
According to house rules, customers can return for second helpings, but they're served with unspoken disapproval. I left Potager hungry both times I visited.
I take responsibility for the first visit, since I didn't show up until 8 p.m., after the early dinner rush had eaten almost everything on offer and the skeleton staff was clearly worn out. Even the squeeze bottle of Dijon-inflected dressing for the green salad was empty, so a staffer quickly mixed a make-do batch. It tasted nothing like the beautifully balanced dressing that graced the salad my more punctual dining companion had requested 30 minutes prior.
Cooking and serving get mixed up at Potager as surely as the mismatched pilsner and parfait glasses into which customers pour their own wine when the wine glass shelf in a corner hutch gets cleared out. When I asked for a cucumber salad, Chippindale excused herself to cut cucumbers. As satisfying as it was to watch my salad's metamorphosis from whole vegetable, the freshness unfortunately served to undermine its flavor: The cucumbers needed more time to marinate in the light vinaigrette that sat at the bottom of the mixing bowl.
Timing problems also afflicted a rice salad threaded with smoked salmon shavings and done up with dill. The overcooked rice was chewy and dry. A silver dollar-sized medallion of steak I tried appeared correctly cooked, with a cardinal red center, but it may have lingered too long on a back counter: The meat was unpleasantly cold and tough.
Potager fared much better with classic dishes from the Moosewood canon: A basil-forward pesto impressed on both visits. And while I missed out on a popular goat cheese quiche, I managed to get a slice of the green pepper and cheddar version. The cheddar was too heavy for the feathery eggs, but the dish was redeemed by a flaky, house-made shell. Chippindale excels at pastry: The single best thing I tasted at Potager was a tart blueberry galette enveloped in gently sweetened sheets of butter-rich crust.
I almost liked the velvety carrot soup, a deeply hued triumph of texture. Yet the soup was short salt—as was a mess of slow-cooked lentils, green peppers and onions—and since the restaurant's only salt shaker sits on the counter in front of Chippindale, I didn't feel comfortable fetching it twice.
Customers are notably well-behaved at Potager, where the mood is more consciousness-raising group than anarchist collective. The small bric-a-brac dining room's ruled by a hushed decorum—as a diner at a neighboring table reminded me with her glances.
One of my dining companions wondered aloud (quietly, of course) about Chippindale's background, guessing her enthusiastic dedication to food reflected a Gallic heritage. Yet there's nothing stereotypically French about Chippindale's genuine eagerness to engage with—and please—her guests. Not surprisingly, she's Canadian.
Watching Chippindale, clad in a black wool beret and a crocheted vest to match the curtains, I felt like I was watching a storybook character. Potager makes the restaurant business as simple as it seems in picture books: There are no computers, no printed menus, no corporate distributors, no valets. There's just a well-intentioned trio of workers making honest food for people who care about what they eat. That's a lovely story, and one which deserves to be preserved.
Potager Café 315 S. Mesquite St., Arlington, 817-861-2292, www.potagercafe.com. Open 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 5:30-9 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. $
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