THE VEGAN ADMINISTRATION

C. Steele's latest Valley venture is a clever, back-to-nature enterprise--in more ways than one. Remember the advertising tag line of the Du Pont corporation, "Better living through chemistry"? No one believes that anymore, especially when it comes to eating. Now C. Steele has tapped into the pure-food Zeitgeist. Everything's organic: the breads, baked goods, produce, soups, sandwiches, salads and even the coffee. The setting reinforces the fare. It's positively bucolic. The restaurant occupies a restored barn, set amid a soothing grove of pecan trees. A small stream flows along the front, past a little vegetable garden. Country-themed merchandise--wind chimes, birdhouses, flowerpots--is for sale outside. Inside are a small organic-produce section, cutesy bottles of dressings and honey and more country gimcracks.

Eating is outdoors, picnic-style, with all the attendant dangers and pleasures. Among the former are flies, mud and a horse that wandered over to one startled group and nibbled on their sandwiches and gulped the iced tea. And at this time of year, if you sit at one of the tables that doesn't have a shade umbrella, management will probably have to scrape you off with a spatula. On the other hand, the birds are madly chirping, South Mountain looms nearby and the food's more than good enough to offset the paper cups and plastic cutlery. It's not exactly soup weather, but the models here can tempt you to disregard the calendar. The thickly stocked black-bean and vegetable soups don't rely on salt to provide flavor. Instead, tasty chunks of vegetables do the job. But the soups ought to come with a hunk of bread. Don't look for massive main-dish platters to fill up on. You're limited to dainty sandwiches and salads. While these portions will satisfy the ladies-who-lunch crowd, folks who have spent the day working the lower forty may find themselves looking at the horse and thinking unwholesome thoughts. The mesquite-grilled organic turkey in the curry turkey sandwich is cooked right there at the farm. How do I know? Because I saw an employee struggling mightily to set a massive bird on one of the ancient outdoor grills. For the first few rounds, at least, the turkey appeared to be winning. Be careful not to confuse organic food with Weight Watchers cuisine. Just because there are no chemicals, it doesn't necessarily follow that there aren't plenty of calories. The turkey sandwich, for example, comes dripping with curried mayo, as well as raisins, red cabbage and carrots. It's all set on some first-rate five-grain bread. The routine tuna sandwich, too, goes pretty heavy on the mayo. The Oriental sandwich is a less-caloric outlet. It's a flour tortilla filled with bean sprouts, cabbage, carrots and jicama, moistened with a peanut hoisin sauce. Or perhaps you'll be fortunate enough to come on a day when the kitchen offers the eggplant special, grilled-and-charred eggplant strips layered with fresh mozzarella, yellow peppers and tomatoes on Italian bread. Salads don't seem quite as zippy as the sandwiches. (They come already prepared and sealed in plastic containers, with the dressings on the side.) And if you don't want to be hungry 30 minutes later, you'll have to buy a small loaf of bread to go with them. Sesame turkey salad combines organic greens, red pepper, jicama and fried noodles, with the only zest supplied by the ginger soy dressing. The caesar salad is just a pile of lettuce coated with a few croutons and a small amount of shredded cheese. The misnamed haricots verts salad--it's mostly spinach--is dulled by a weak lemon vinaigrette. Desserts, however, are very enjoyable. The home-baked apple cobbler and sugar-glazed scones provide a good excuse for lingering. And it's reassuring to know the pounds they're adding are strictly organic.

C. Steele's wholesome fare may not convert every diner to the pure-food movement. But its rustic charm seems certain to win a loyal following.

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