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Taste the Rainbow

Vegetarian with staying power at Rainbow Grocery

Despite the healthy claims of their cuisine, vegetarian restaurants by and large don't live long in Atlanta. Consider Lush, the best vegetarian restaurant to ever open here. Its elegant ambiance and intense flavors never reminded you that you were eating healthy, dammit. Now, about a year after opening, it's closed. Its website says it's seeking a new location and I hope that's true.

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For the most part, the best vegetarian and vegan choices remain the city's ethnic restaurants, especially the Indian ones, while creative American choices (besides Sunflower Cafe) are few and far between.

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Last week, I happened to be in the Emory area and decided to visit Rainbow Natural Foods (2118 N. Decatur Road, 404-633-3538), a grocery with a vegetarian cafe in the rear. I'd venture to say this is the oldest such operation in our city. In fact, as I was paying for my meal, I said to the apparent manager and cook that I used to be a regular there a zillion years ago soon after it opened. He replied, "Well, we are celebrating our 30th year in business this month."

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"Well," I mumbled back, "I meant to say my mother bought organic infant formula for me here."

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Things have both changed and not changed at the cafe. The tiny dining room in the back looks unaltered in 30 years and could really use a face-lift, if only in the form of some paint. It's a gloomy space of natural wood and sporadically hung paintings that don't do much to enliven the ambiance unless you like being stared at by cats. The perky red awning at the kitchen window looks like ornamentation on a carnival corndog stand. Come on, guys. Spruce it up!

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According to the cook, who has been there 13 years, the big change that took place some time ago is the elimination of table service. The food is now all on a long buffet outside the dining room. "The store and the servers couldn't make any money with people sitting forever at the few tables. Meanwhile, our business was steadily becoming mainly takeout," he said. "So this was a natural transition."

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I am no fan of buffets, generally. Food left to sit in steam trays can change texture. Flavors can grow muddled as odors waft from one dish to the next. The whole business of piling food on a plate and weighing it makes me feel like a character out of Animal Farm. And generally, I like to collapse at a table with a book and camp for a while in a restaurant, especially at lunch.

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But the reason I feel free to rather harshly criticize Rainbow's less-than-bright ambiance is the quality of the food. Even years ago, I loved the soups here, and everything I sampled, with one exception, was delicious during three visits last week.

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Here's why. For the most part, the restaurant is not making bizarre mock-meat dishes. There are no strings of soy protein posing as shrimp that I've encountered, no country-fried tempeh. Instead, most of the dishes are lightly and interestingly seasoned, lovingly cooked vegetables like roasted beets, lima beans and braised kale.

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But there are interesting daily-changing dishes, too, that show some complexity. Polenta with spinach under jack cheese is surprisingly delicious, as is a strada of artichoke hearts, black olives, parmesan and feta cheeses, spinach and eggs. Such dishes frequently invite heavy-handed spicing, but not here. Mercifully, the ingredients themselves carry most of the flavor.

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Ditto for eggplant parmesan. One of the most interesting dishes I sampled was understatedly called a "potato roll" by one of the employees. It is actually a crispy, chewy roll of phyllo pastry filled with curried potatoes and vegetables. In short, it's a phyllo version of a dhosa. Marvelous. Spicy but authentically so.

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There is also a cold bar of the usual salad bar items and, here and there around the dining room's exterior, a variety of mainly tasty salads pre-packaged for take-home. You'll also find desserts here.

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I usually find desserts the great downfall of most vegetarian cooking. Lush, entirely vegan, was an amazing exception. At Rainbow, I decided to play it safe. What's the one dessert you expect a vegetarian restaurant to do right? Carrot cake, of course. Sorry, but I found Rainbow's virtually inedible. Its icing is tolerable, but the carroty part is kind of like a dense tofu-and-sawdust concoction. Yes, I have no doubt the cake has legions of fans who have been eating it for 30 years. Well, I have two-thirds of a piece in my fridge available for adoption.

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That and the gloomy décor aside, I am happy to rediscover Rainbow. I do not know any better American-style vegetarian cooking in the city these days.

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Down the sidewalk

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In the same shopping center that houses Rainbow, Saigon Cafe (2092 N. Decatur Road, 404-728-8882) has opened its fifth restaurant specializing in Vietnamese food (along with some Thai dishes).

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It has long mystified me that Vietnamese food has not acquired the same following that Thai food has. I much prefer its fabulous blend of the cooked and the raw, its caramelized or grilled meats, its vinegary fish sauce, its textural complexity. So I'm glad to see a place like Saigon Cafe spreading the word.

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I've only dined here once and didn't try any of the long list of soups (pho) but found most of the food I sampled good, though not on par with a restaurant like Com. Fried rice-paper rolls filled with shrimp and pork (cha gio) were frankly greasy, a problem easily remedied by draining them a minute or two before serving them at a thermonuclear temperature.

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The best, most interesting dish was a starter of fried sweet potato cakes to which whole unpeeled shrimps were affixed. Dip in fish sauce and eat the whole thing, head included. A classic bun dish — rice noodles with herbs, grilled shrimp and pork, along with cha gio — was refreshing and light. Less satisfying by far was sliced filet mignon, marinated and served with sticky yellow rice.

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A mango "icy" — like a Vietnamese Slurpee — was sweet enough to kill a diabetic on the spot.



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