The Austin Chronicle

Sleek But Sporadic

Does a Vegetarian Monopoly Breed Complacency?

By Meredith Phillips, April 11, 1997, Food

West Lynn Cafe

1110 West Lynn, 482-0950
Mon-Thu, 11:30am-10pm; Fri 'til 10:30pm; Sat, 11am-10:30pm;
Sun, 11am-9:30.

photograph by John Anderson

To look at the front of it and even when you walk inside, you'd never guess that West Lynn Cafe occupies the site and structure of an old gas station. On the outside, creeping flowers and highway bumps offset an open, arbored, Austin-indigenous edifice. Inside, east wall windows that stretch all the way up to high ceilings flood the cafe with sunlight in the morning and afternoon. In the evening, the light is softer. Candles flicker on each table and paintings by local artists hang on the muted purple and yellow walls. West Lynn at a glance looks promising -- a swank atmosphere at a homey West Austin address with an extensive, moderately priced ($6.95-9.95) vegetarian menu and a broad wine list -- is it too good to be true?

For my first visit, I went on a night when I wanted a light dinner, the idea being that I would try a few dishes while soaking up the atmosphere and scoping out the enormous menu. West Lynn features two soups per day, one of them vegan. We tried a bowl of the (non-vegan) cream of artichoke ($3.50), and while I was pleased by an infusion of herbs in the soup, the creaminess masked the tang of the artichokes. The stock, if there was one, didn't pack enough flavor to carry the rest of the ingredients. The golden component of soup is salt, and I needed to add my own.

On the other hand, the Pizza Mediterraneo
(7" individual for $8.95), a combination of garlicky pesto, wilted spinach, sautéed red onions, and mushrooms, Greek olives, pecan slivers, and currants topped by dabs of chevre, feta, and mozzarella, was a winner. The earthy mushrooms, tangy cheese, smoky pecans, sweet currants, and salty olives sang together, well enough, even, to drown out an uninspired crust.

West Lynn Cafe boasts one of the only all-vegetarian menus in the city, and its proprietors also own Mother's Cafe & Garden, probably their stiffest competition for vegetarian attention. Austin is fortunate to have a semi-upscale vegetarian option, but I would hope their positional advantage wouldn't encourage West Lynn to cut corners with their food. While footnotes on the menu talk about the freshness of ingredients and the fact that they cook with and serve only purified water, this level of dedication is not reflected in the presentation of food, as was evidenced by my next trip.

I started off hungrier this time, and ate half a loaf of steaming sesame bread with herbed oil while anxiously awaiting some mushroom pâté ($4.95), greedily visualizing a muddy, decadent smear accompanied by crusty bread. Vegetarian or no, pâté signals refinery, but also a base, almost bacchanalian richness -- that's why we eat it at parties. But all my hopes plummeted to disdain with the delivery of a white ramekin of whipped-texture seasoned cream cheese (Neufchatel?) with button-mushroom flavor accents. Luckily, I continued to be distracted by sesame bread and the arrival of a hefty portion of mixed field greens topped with perfect, sweetly acidic cocktail tomatoes and inspired cashew-tamari dressing ($3.95).

Pizza Mediterraneo at West Lynn Cafe

photograph by John Anderson

As an entrée, I chose a vegetarian classic from the "international" portion of the menu: eggplant parmesan ($9.95). Eggplant slices are breaded and then baked -- casserole style -- with cheeses and marinara sauce. What it looked like was a square of lasagna served next to a side of angel-hair pasta. This, the most expensive dish on the menu I might add, was entirely pre-prepared. And if that wasn't enough, it was placed squarely on a quickly blackening lettuce leaf. My companion had better luck with a chili relleno ($9.50) from the "Southwestern" page of the menu. A mild poblano was stuffed with peas, corn kernels, brown rice, and cilantro, rolled in batter, fried, and baked with cheese, sour cream, and a ranchero sauce that tasted suspiciously similar to the marinara. The sauce was a disappointment: It was dry, as was the side of black beans, and almost baked onto the plate. Pecans and currants on top of the poblano added good texture and a sweet zing to counter the pepper. Still, each of these entrées might have benefited from slight tweaking: The stuffed chili would have made a completely different impression had it been baked for a shorter time without the beans, which were dried out by the heat. And since eggplant parmesan is not a complex dish, a more careful presentation would have been advantageous.

We finished the meal by sharing two slices of cake ($3.50 apiece): A chocolate cake with mocha icing (a special that night), and a signature dessert, the West Lynn Cheesecake. The edges of the chocolate/mocha cake were dehydrated, as if it had been sliced and sitting out for too long. The cheesecake was certainly a better dessert, but had none of the characteristics that the menu attributed to it; described as having a layer of cream cheese frosting, vanilla, almond, and lemon in a ginger cookie crust, the cheesecake resembled a generic Sysco cheesecake with one layer, no frosting, and no ginger-cookie crust. I assumed that there had been a mistake and inquired of the waitress, who assured me that it was in fact the West Lynn Cheesecake, and would I prefer something else?

This brings to mind rumors I had been hearing that West Lynn's waitstaff is unprofessional at times -- a friend tells the story of a waitress who spilled olive oil on the jeans of a patron and then told him not to worry, that "it will come out" -- so we paid particular attention to the service. Bogged down with an unwieldy tray, our gracious waitress slipped and fell. But the moment she extradited herself from a sea of glass shards, she was at our table to explain that our coffee would be out in just a moment. About 15 seconds later, she brought the coffee with beads of sweat on her upper lip and a smile -- absolutely no complaints there.

In all fairness, I have visited West Lynn in the past with sporadic good luck. I harbor very fond memories of some rich and creamy button mushroom stroganoff over fettucine. And last year at a Sunday brunch I enjoyed the spinach, mushroom, and walnut crepes enough to try to replicate them (with pathetic results) in my own kitchen. But it seems that West Lynn's semi-monopoly on vegetarian cuisine breeds a certain complacency, or maybe it's just that attention to detail in image and atmosphere take priority over well-thought-out recipes and attractive presentations. Unfortunately, at West Lynn, the atmosphere and food are at disparate levels of sophistication.

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