Lifestyles Café doesn't have much of a wine list and what it does have includes Fre and Ariel, two brands that have the alcohol sucked out of them. It doesn't serve much in the way of sodas, either; a couple two-liters of cola are kept on hand mainly as mixers for the scant booze stocked behind the bar.
Instead, Lifestyles Café has lemonade. Thirty kinds of lemonade, to be precise, a handful of them rotated daily into the dispensers that line a wall up front. There's peach lemonade, strawberry lemonade, orange-pineapple lemonade, grape-cranberry lemonade, mango lemonade, classic lemonade. What Lifestyles might lack in liquors, it more than makes up for in lemonades. In fact, so sublime are these lemonades, they can and should be sipped and ruminated upon as if elegant pours of a top-growth Barolo or New Zealand pinot noir. Sweet but not saccharine, almost nectarlike, each varietal boasts a smooth, rounded finish with none of that tacky aftertaste that plagues many a lesser lemonade.
Improbably, two-and-a-half-month-old Lifestyles Café owes its very existence to these lemonades, which are crafted and distributed locally by the restaurant's manager, Patrick Steptoe, using his grandmother's secret recipe. Steptoe has been bottling his beverages under the name Luther Dreyers Lemonades for several years; Straub's was his biggest account. Now he's got another outlet for his lemonade business, and chef/owner Denise Hairston has an outlet for her niche cuisine: meatless soul food.
Wine for teetotalers is one thing. But meatless soul food? At best, that's just sass; at worst, soul food with its soul eviscerated. What is soul food without fried chicken, fatback, ribs, Salisbury steak? How does one presume to cook mustard and turnip tops without a hunk of salt pork in the pot to savory up the greens?
By boiling them in vegetable broth and adding a liberal dose of pepper a for-better-or-worse indulgence to which Lifestyles submits most of its soul foods, whether to camouflage the absence of fleshy flavor or because the pepper shaker seems to have fallen into the pot by accident.
Still, those greens are pretty great: more astringent and bitter than your usual collards or mustards, but fantastic all the same, no bones about it (as it were).
The greens, along with other tweaked Southern staples, come out to play mostly on Soul Food Sundays, when Lifestyles serves up a bargain-priced, prix fixe menu of barbecue tofu, meatless meat loaf, rice and gravy, fried corn, mac and cheese, maple-syrup yams and more. Fifteen bucks nets one entrée, two sides, cornbread, dessert, a glass of that awesome lemonade and 51 cents change. The portions rank on the small side, but your belly will cash out by the time you're done stuffing it with sweets like a moist and delicious walnut brownie so dense it could stop a bullet, or a rough-hewn, homemade lemon pound cake (yep, the recipe calls for lemonade) that earns the weight distinction noted in its name.
Lifestyles does right by what it allows itself to work with. But you can't help missing what isn't there. The deli-thin slices of barbecue tofu embrace the bean curd's springy, spongy texture, but succeed mostly as a conveyance for their sweet barbecue sauce. Chickenless dumplings, floury but peppery, and cornbread dressing, with its mild, mealy texture and hint of celery, both seem in need of a powerful top note.
Lifestyles allows for fish, and aside from occasional peppery overkill, does a bang-up job. Items like baked whitefish or oven-fried tilapia and perch may look like generic slabs of Gorton's frozen fillets, but they tote along a light, floral flavor well tempered with that hit of pepper. Salmon croquettes boast big chunks of scallions and a moist texture without any sign of over-mayonnaised gloppiness. Off the à la carte menu, a fully dressed tilapia sandwich on an onion roll with lettuce, tomato, onion and mayo is a cushy, cozy delight. Jerk fish was a fine specimen, thick and flaky, seasoned relentlessly with cinnamon until its scent approached potpourri.
Only a few salmon-based dishes fell short. An entrée of vegetable fried rice a fillet of salmon sprinkled with sesame seeds, bedded upon a soy-soaked pile of brown rice (or was that just white rice stained with soy?) arrived overdone and rather joyless, with minuscule bits of broccoli, cauliflower and bean sprouts making halfhearted appearances in the rice paddy. Smoked salmon bowtie pasta shouldn't have worked, what with those nubby bits of salmon all but forgotten amid overcooked noodles, eggy cream sauce and dots of cooked peas. But in a homemade, even-bad-pasta-is-great-pasta way, it did.
Just as the word "meatless" has little evident business appearing alongside the term "soul food," so does the phrase "smoked salmon bowtie pasta" not jibe with the concept of "meatless soul food." Lifestyles does suffer somewhat from a split personality. (Though perhaps that explains why the restaurant's name is a plural.) When you're talking soul food even meatless soul food how do you rationalize items like spinach artichoke dip (pleasant, if bitter, accompanied by meek tortilla chips), Greek salad (salty and sour, front-loaded with kalamatas and light on the feta), tuna melts and taco salads?
Though again, that's not to disparage the execution. Personal-size "sausage" and veggie pizzas possess all the best qualities of Sbarro's awesome Supreme pies heaps of fresh-cut vegetables mingling with the mozzarella and meat with hardly any of the greasiness. These pies have toppings so mountainous, their thin crusts buckle under the weight.
Lifestyles Café is obviously eager to please all comers: those looking for live music (in the form of jazz on Saturday nights), a sit-down dinner, a Sunday brunch, New American fare, down-home Southern suppers. The front room even serves as a takeout joint/ice cream parlor yep, there's lemonade ice cream (and strawberry-lemonade ice cream and peach-lemonade ice cream). Decorated in pleasing (if innocuous) lavender and violet tones offset by smart black chairs and white tablecloths, the dining room and lounge are as smoove as the lite jazz piped in when there's no live music. Strangely enough, though, one night when I was eating in the lounge, the flat-screen TV perched on one wall was broadcasting the FOX News Channel.
Bill O'Reilly in a vegetarian soul food jazz club? Now that's just sass.