I was surprised to hear our brown-eyed, soft-spoken waiter raise his voice, sounding highly annoyed.
"Hey, we could open the window and let it go out," he said sternly to the man across the room, who was busy thrashing at an unwelcome bee that had happened to buzz through the front door. The poor critter was drawn to the sunlight streaming through the window, and kept bouncing off the glass.
"Oh, no, she's deathly allergic," insisted the man, gesturing toward a woman at his table who, under the circumstances, didn't seemed too alarmed. She continued to munch on her sandwich as the man kept taking swipes at the bug.
The Center Bistro
The Center Bistro, 21 East Sixth Street, Tempe
Salmon flatbread: $10
Turkey sandwich: $12
Artichoke caesar: $10
Karmic colada: $6
480-491-5591, web link Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight
Meanwhile, the waiter's horrified expression contrasted sharply with the happy, breezy electronic lounge music playing in the background. He retreated to the kitchen, presumably so he wouldn't have to witness the murder. Caught in the middle of this strange exchange, my dining companions and I tried not to giggle.
Such surreal moments might be inevitable at The Center Bistro, an organic, vegan-friendly restaurant whose mission statement concludes, "Conscious lives deserve to be long and healthy lives."
God save the bee!
There were other amusingly New Age-y touches, from the menu categories (appetizers were "conscious beginnings," desserts were "to live for") to "chakra bottled water" that came in seven different "vibrations" (want a taste of "wisdom" or "joy"?). I'd never heard of gac fruit or seabuck berry, but I could've added them to a smoothie. And even now, I'm still sorting out my feelings about those organic beers and wines. According to the menu, they're "better for the planet," but can my liver tell the difference?
Well, The Center Bistro is connected to a yoga studio, after all, so the not-so-subtle health and environmental reminders don't come as a surprise. In light of the upcoming holiday food and booze onslaught, the promise of good-for-me food sounded really appealing.
As it turned out, a lot of the dishes were impressively flavorful and luscious, completely in line with chef Damon Brasch's other two eateries, That's a Wrap and Green. From the first whiff of garlic when I walked past the open kitchen, to the last bite of raw Fuji apple pie (a deconstructed take on the dessert, with a soft, sticky cinnamon walnut "crust" and spiced shreds of apple), everything was mouthwatering.
Okay, almost everything. There were a few "conscious beginnings" that only made me conscious of disappointment. In particular, I wasn't digging the raw organic hummus. It looked beautiful, surrounded by thin apple slices and skinny triangles of pita, but with every passing bite, I couldn't get over how unlike hummus it was, both in taste and texture. Instead of that seductively nutty flavor of chickpea and olive oil, this was pungent, and it wasn't thick and creamy like you'd expect.
I'd also pass on the baked coconut tofu and blackened tempeh appetizer. Again, it had a nice presentation, with alternating cubes of tofu and tempeh neatly stacked together, topped with bean sprouts and spicy-sweet red chile sauce. Swirled around in enough of the sauce, the tofu was okay, but the tempeh was dryly bland. Meanwhile, the shrimp summer rolls, served with kimchi aioli and tamari peanut sauce, weren't bad, although I missed the familiar moistness of rice noodles (instead of the traditional Vietnamese filling, these were stuffed with shredded Napa cabbage).
As for the smoked salmon flatbread, I'd order that again in a heartbeat, and probably keep it for myself. It was completely addicting, with moist chunks of fish, sweet caramelized shallots, and gobs of melted white cheddar on top of thin, crisp flatbread pieces. A drizzle of smooth cilantro crème fraîche brightened the flavors.
The "organic seasonal architecture of fruit" turned out to be an artsy little composition of berries, kiwi, cantaloupe, and watermelon, paired with a frozen coconut-blueberry cube. A bowl of miso soup, filled with bits of tofu and plenty of seaweed, was tasty, too.
"Karmic coladas," five different fruit smoothies fortified with soy and coconut, were as irresistible as milkshakes. Spirulina made the banana-blueberry blend a scary dark green, but the flavor was instantly likeable. The strawberry/peach/mango reminded me of Häagen-Dazs strawberry, and the coffee/coco/banana was simply unique. I was sad when I slurped up the last drop.
Sandwiches (on tortilla, whole grain bun, or soft whole wheat pita) and oversized salads take up the better part of the menu, and from what I tasted, there wasn't a loser in the bunch.
All of the salads were heaping, frilly green pyramids — you could definitely fill up on them, especially if you added chicken, tofu, or salmon. Although it didn't really achieve the creamy, garlicky taste of a traditional caesar salad, The Center Bistro's artichoke caesar was nevertheless good, a mix of Romaine, baby greens, Romano cheese, and tomatoes.
In the Asian peanut salad, both honey mango vinaigrette and peanut ginger glaze jazzed up a mix of greens, scallion, and shreds of carrot. Best of all was the picnic salad, a sweet, tangy combination of greens, raspberries, strawberries, blue cheese, candied walnuts, and tamarind balsamic glaze, framed by slices of apple and peach.
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A wild mushroom sandwich was the only straight-up vegan option on the sandwich list, although you could substitute baked tofu for any meat. My friend said it was the best vegetarian sammy he'd ever eaten, and indeed, it was outstanding, fragrant with garlic and pesto and fresh dill. On the proudly carnivorous end of the spectrum, I loved the tender, thick cuts of roast beef tucked into a sandwich with beets, blue cheese, and balsamic.
Salmon with heirloom tomatoes, daikon, and horseradish-black sesame aioli tasted light and clean, while the free-range turkey, topped with plump cranberries and smothered with hemp-nut mayo and vegan cream cheese, was deceptively rich — you'd never guess it contained no dairy products.
Healthful, organic food usually comes with a dose of hippie discipline, but I couldn't help but notice how the food at The Center Bistro tasted like a guilty pleasure — no sacrifice necessary.
What's not to love?