The burly bloke behind the bain-marie baulked when we inquired how we would identify the organic dishes. Reluctantly, he backstepped to his culinary colleague who gestured that she too, was not so sure. He returned to the counter citing that if they were to use organic produce, the costs would be much higher and what more did we want for our dining dollar? Previously, in another part of the restaurant, our waitress enthused that organic produce was used where possible. The inaugural grog menus published also reassured me that there were some signs of organic life on Soul Mama’s menu, however the latest edition denies any allegiance, albeit for a handful of well selected alcoholic organics.
Soul Mama is a vegetarian cafeteria in the true sense of the word. Like some exotic vegetarian annexe of an ocean liner, or perhaps a suburban Club Med, patrons first receive a meal ticket with their table number on it which they then line up and present to the kitchen staff who then dispense items from the buffet. There are several dining combinations to choose from. The separate bowl combo ($10-$18) provides a selection of two to four small bowls of your choice plus a bowl of rice. The all on one plate combo ($9-$17) is available in three sizes, or diners may choose solo items ($6-$7). This format takes a bit of getting used to and was politely explained to us three times. Once your selections have been made and cutlery collected you may sit down. Echoes of the boarding school dining room persistently haunted me as I retreated to our table, armed with a tray of soul. Drink service is on the contrary, with full table service and a nicely balanced list of fresh juice, great teas, beers and wines to choose from.
Back at buffet world, the aesthetically pleasing water baths thermally regulate the cast iron Le Cruset cookware that houses much of what is on offer. Nestled on a floor of river stones and clear water, this colourful buffet delivers a visual highlight. Inside these pots you’ll discover a plethora of vegetarian splendour.
Predominantly derived from the legume family, Soul Mama’s hot pots included several spiced lentil offerings, a lukewarm black-eyed bean stew, a lima bean hotpot that screamed of ghee and asafoetida (an Indian powder extracted from oriental palm trees that has an acquired taste). Mandatory rice balls and lasagne squares, some excellent seared polenta, authentic corn bread and various other carbohydrate rich creations were also available. To the right, the salad bar displays another dozen or so platters. The lima bean and sumac salad was too cold, but its flavours worked well. The Italian bean salad resembled the three-bean variety a little too closely for my liking, while the puy lentil salad looked great, however we declined after bulking up on the warmer versions.
Regional inspiration seemed to focus heavily on the classic European, Mid-Eastern and Sub-continental expressions of vegetarian cuisine. Disappointingly, very little attention was given to the Orient, the undisputed champions of soy, spice and seaweed. Mama worships a Buddha, yet not a square of tofu in sight? Where were the Japanese eggplants baked with miso, or simmering Agedashi Dofu or at least a Thai coriander and lemongrass infused broth? No classic South-east Asian fare to be seen. Alas, the menu that night predominantly pulsated with slow cooked legumes spiced with fragrant dried pods and seeds. This was heavy food, centred on ingredients that could survive heat lamps and slow turnover if required. Some dishes were excellent, however some just barely diverged from the old days at Gopals – floury and overcooked. Overall the flavours were very honest, however the inconsistencies in thermal temperature were very disconcerting.
Soul Mama’s ethos encourages the survival of the animal kingdom by lessening our own human consumption of farmed animals, thus freeing up more grain for the Third World. The perils of an excess of saturated fat that may be derived from animal flesh and dairy products, not to mention the scandalous BSE (Mad Cow) epidemic of recent years, are well documented. The process of homogenising and pasteurising milk results in a highly fragmented food, prompting a steady increase in lactose intolerance and associated symptoms of ill health. Too much dairy combined with starch is not a good thing.
Our third visit to the display cabinet (potentially embarrassing for some) delivered us to the dessert window. Oh dear, why was everything so brown? From the chocolate pots to the fruit crumble to the stewed fruit compote – brown, brown, brown. We opted for the Cookies & Cream (brown) and the Portuguese lemon pie (a very small brown), both were at the rich brown price of $7. Cream or icecream were complimentary accompaniments. Both desserts were good, however the commercially produced icecream was watery and tasteless and combined with the Cookies & Cream, resulted in over saturation of fat on anyone’s colour chart.
The peace, love ‘n’ lentil era of the sixties and seventies demanded that all health food be brown, or at least of muted tones, and that it should favour the yogic ingredients of India. At the dawn of our third millennium, there is simply no excuse for a lack of imagination when it comes to enhancing the awareness of healthy cooking techniques, introducing efficacious healing foods and to deliver them to the table with an abundance of colour and creativity.
Soul Mama’s cavernous, yet cosy atmosphere, great view and (almost) all you can eat concept will certainly appeal to many, particularly the faithful, flaxen, feminine lunch set from Bayside and beyond. Soul Mama cannot expect it’s service and health cuisine to be taken too seriously.
Compared to its Manhattan counterparts, it simply goes against the grain.