The Good Life Cafe

3544 Grand Ave., Mpls.; 824-5433

Grand and 36th Street is a corner well-known to natural health buffs who come to Present Moment for herbs, books, elixirs, and other Dr. Feelgood products. Now, with The Good Life Cafe, a mostly vegan/organic establishment, there's somewhere close by for them to eat. But this shouldn't stop the rest of us steak-eating, ice cream-loving, Chi-energy wreckers from hitting it up for a good meal; it's comfortable and relaxed enough for everyone.

Spacious and inviting, with candles on each of the several wooden tables as well as on the beautiful mosaic coffee bar, the Good Life is awash in the scent of spices. The kitchen behind the cashier is filled with bubbling pots and pans, the bang of an oven door shutting occasionally cutting through the jazz that plays overhead. To the left is the coffee/organic juice bar, where you can find booster chairs and children's puzzles as well as tossed-off newspapers. To the right is a deli case stocked modestly with natural soda, bottled juice, and a few salads. The menu of the day is scratched with colored chalk along with drawings of flowers on the black board--easy to follow if not very expansive.

My friends and I made short work of it, ordering what seemed to be the day's cornerstones, a cup of black bean soup, pizza, paella, and ginger-sesame noodles. They say that the food on the neighboring plate is usually better than the food on your own, and it sure did seem that way to me that evening. My friend's order of pizza was completely divine, made with a hand-rolled herbed crust that was chewy and light, topped with glossy slabs of roasted red pepper, eggplant, and portabello mushrooms, all in the very good company of a fresh, chunky tomato sauce ($6). The sesame noodles, a cold salad strewn with the occasional carrot and green onion, was also quite good, if not as spectacular, laid out with thinly sliced tomatoes, made sturdy with a couple of slices of wheat baguette, and sparked by ginger and soy sauce ($4). The black bean soup ($1.50/2.75) was marvelous, mixed with a fresh tomato base. The plate in front of me, the paella ($6.75), was not, I fear, as loved as the other dishes.

Promised vegetables and basmati rice in a Spanish saffron broth, I pictured something different from the mush of starch stuck with string beans and carrots that I got. But the mixed green salad and home-baked bread that came with it kept my spirits high; maybe I just have to get used to this organic thing a little more before I start judging too closely.

The cafe bakes a variety of muffins, cookies, scones, and cakes in various fat-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, and wheat-free denominations. Of all the options, the one that sounded the most decadent and non-healthy, the almond joy bars ($1.50), were all out. Apparently others share my unenviable desire to follow up a super-healthy meal with a high dose of sugar.

Maybe the morning is the best time to revel in the bakery. What goes better with a large glass of fresh-squeezed orange and carrot juice spiced with ginger ($3) than a fruit-sweetened, dairy-free scone, maybe the current-pecan? How else to follow their "super-nutty raisin granola" than with a cashew/corn muffin ($1.50)? They do serve a whole range of coffee drinks, and even have syrups to spike them with, so things aren't completely moral, nutritionally speaking. Thank goodness.

Even if you can't muster the same beatific smiles that the staff beam, even if you don't swath yourself in essence oils, and even if you opt for cheddar over soy cheese every time, The Good Life still opens its arms to you. For a quiet, cheap, and nourishing meal with a cozy, undaunting atmopshere, I can think of few better places to go.

TABLEHOPPING

TENDERHEARTED TENORS: If you fancy yourself a Pavarotti, here's the excuse for zealous practicing of arias in the shower that you've been waiting for. On March 10, 7:30 p.m. at Murray's Steak House (26 S. 6th St., Mpls.; 339-0909), an Irish Tenor Contest will commence. Piano accompaniment will be provided, so you don't need to worry about dragging that bit of furniture with you. If you are deemed the best of the bunch, you will receive a Silver Butter Knife Dinner Certificate, a bottle of champagne, and rides in a horse drawn carriage in the St. Paul St. Patrick's Day parade. After the contest, anyone interested is invited to participate in an old Irish tradition called the "Irish Piece," which features a hodge-podge of talents, including story telling, songs, poems, and whatever else you plan to bring to it. Tenors should call Linda Lindquist at 333-2507.

SAD, CRUEL WORLD: The other night at the Lagoon Theater during the screening of the movie Prisoners of the Mountain, there were many wet eyes and sniveling noses. The plot, a poignant war story, was heavy indeed, but could the scene of a Russian commander shovelling tablespoon after tablespoon of fine, black caviar into his mouth have caused a great deal of the audience's discomfort? Can you imagine a sadder thing than watching someone else sucking up the caviar as if there were no tomorrow, while you have to content yourself with a sack of dry popcorn? To save yourself from excessive grief and envy, try making do with this recipe dug up expressly for the occasion, from Lydie Marshall's Chez Nous: Home Cooking from the South of France.

Caviar d'aubergines (Eggplant Caviar)

* 1/2 pound fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped (1/2 cup)

* 3/4 tsp. salt

* 1 1/2 pounds eggplants

* 4 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. olive oil

* 2/3 cup minced onion

* 4 large garlic cloves, minced

* 4 tsp. red wine vinegar

* Freshly ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. In a strainer above a mixing bowl, sprinkle the tomatoes with 1/4 tsp. salt; let drain for 20 minutes. Split each eggplant in half lengthwise. Drizzle one tsp. of oil over the cut tops. Place in a baking dish with 1/2 cup water and bake for 45 minutes or until tender. Turn them over after 20 minutes, adding more water if necessary. Set aside to cool. With a teaspoon, scoop out the flesh of the eggplants. In a food processor, puree the eggplant, the drained tomatoes, onion, garlic, remaining oil, vinegar, 1/2 tsp. salt, and pepper for one minute. Taste and correct seasoning.

SO LONG, COLD FEBRUARY:This Saturday marks the last Family Day on the Minnesota Zephyr. Meet the train's conductor and engineer, spend 45 mintues zooming through the beautiful winter scenery provided by the St. Croix River Valley, and enjoy a special box lunch. Boarding begins at 11:30, with a noon departure. Tickets are $12.95 each; call 430-3000 for reservations. These are also among the last days to try out Dixie's (695 Grand Ave., St. Paul; 222-7345) February menu. How could they axe the red snapper a la pomme de terre (that's pan-fried red snapper fillet with a dijon mustard/hash brown crust served with roasted red pepper sauce), the crawfish étoufée, the catfish po boy, and the crawfish bisque from the menu? Make haste before you miss out. That sage advice also applies to the Twin City Grill (Mall of America), featuring regional barbecue and blues from now through Friday, Feb. 21. Call 854-0200 for reservations.

HOW MANY SAMPLES MAKE A MEAL? With a nod toward their growing commitment to organic foods, Byerly's (all Twin Cities locations) is holding in-store demonstrations with sampling of some of the organic products available throughout the stores this Friday and Saturday. Yum. Speaking of samples, I've been snacking in Williams-Sonoma while passing through the skyway lately; I never do buy those non-stick pans or fancy bread mixes, and this has left me feeling guilty. Buying a cookbook is the remedy; now I can make for my own self the things that they set out in 1/2 inch cubes. From the Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Library: Vegetarianby Joanne Weir comes this recipe for Corn-and-Jalapeño Pancakes:

* 2 cups fresh corn kernels (cut from 3 ears or frozen)

* 5 fresh jalapeño chili peppers, seeded and minced

* 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

* 1 red bell pepper, seeded, and finely diced

* 6 green (spring) onions, whites plus 2 inches of the tender green tops, thinly sliced

* 2 eggs

* 1 1/4 all-purpose flour

* 1/2 cup cornmeal

* 1 tsp. baking powder

* 1 tsp. salt, plus salt to taste

* 2 tbsp. fresh lime juice

* 1 1/2 cups milk

* freshly gound pepper

Fill a saucepan three-fourths full with water, salt it lightly, and bring to a boil. Add the corn kernels and cook for one minute. Drain, place in a large bowl, and let cool. Add the chili peppers, garlic, bell pepper, and green onions, mix well and set aside. In a food processor, combine the eggs, flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt, and lime juice to form a smooth batter. Add to the corn mixture and stir to mix. Season to taste with more salt, if needed, and pepper. Let stand until room temperature, about 30 minutes, and then fry them up! Serve with sour cream and salsa. Serves six.

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