Elmo's Diner long ago locked in a potent commercial formula: a downtown Carrboro location with ample parking; warehouse space that humors Carrboro's franchise-averse bourgeois bohemians (aka BOBOS); eclectic Southern/Tex-Mex menu that neither thrills nor disappoints; the Triangle's best cobblers; consistently efficient service somehow coaxed from moonlighting UNC students.
I don't know the diner's bottom line, but having often waited for a table with an excited 2-through-10-year-old, I can say that the place is like a Texas oil well: in restaurant terms, a gusher.
When Panzanella—RIP, old friend—vacated Carr Mill Mall, Elmo's executed a pincer movement. Already occupying the mall's east flank, it seized the west. Hence the "symmetry" conceit of its new enterprise. The question is whether Elmo's can replicate its success while departing from its formula.
Cafe Symmetry turns out to be the arch-Carrboro restaurant—or more accurately, cafeteria, complete with glass sneeze guard and tray slide. It emphasizes the gluten-free, local, non-GMO, organic, vegan and vegetarian, none of which comports with my A.J. Liebling-inspired doctrine of under-the-table over-indulgence and my even more basic notion that bread—which is to say gluten—is the staff of life.
Take it as read that Cafe Symmetry will appeal to its natural constituencies (hempen, professorial, neo-pastoral, etc.), but what about the rest of us? The ethics of food production aside, how is the food? Answer: edible but not titillating, seductive, orgasmic or any of the other sexual adjectives we associate with high concentrations of fat.
During several free-range grazing sessions with my Elmo's-pining daughter in tow, I sampled nearly 20 dishes: Sriracha slaw, Asian-style sesame noodles, watermelon with basil and balsamic glaze, sesame seed-flecked carrot medallions, avocado and cherry tomato salad, barbecued shrimps on a skewer, barbecued tofu, kale salad with parmesan shavings, mac and cheese, bison chili, chicken mole, pulled pork, brisket sandwich with caramelized onion and Gruyére, chocolate chip cookie, chocolate chia pudding and avocado-lime pie.
Many of these items seemed under-salted, presumably intentionally. This is sound public policy in an age of government-funded health care, but unsound gastronomy. Improperly salted food is like an out-of-tune instrument. Something feels awry at the very foundation.
In its favor, Cafe Symmetry largely avoids the aggressive greenery that makes for such ripe satire (recall the "steel-cut spelt husks" that Marge Simpson buys on an ill-advised foray to "Wellness Foods"). The chili, mole, pulled pork and brisket sandwich were conventional enough, while the side dishes and salads seemed more like home-cooked standards than militant statements. Imagine the sort of meal a kitchen-competent mom might devise 24 hours after dad received his cholesterol results.
I was thrown at first by the simplicity and earnestness of the approach. Cafe Symmetry serves an array of colorful fountain drinks, including "hibiscus tea."
"What's in the hibiscus tea?" I asked.
"But what's in the hibiscus tea?"
"It's just hibiscus tea."
The hibiscus tea tasted like ... hibiscus tea. It was refreshing. I'd rather have horchata or Boylan's birch beer, but I'd take the hibiscus tea over your average semi-flat Coke dispensed from under the bar. The more concoctive carrot-ginger lemonade was equally pleasant.
Only the desserts sunk under the moral burden of their own healthiness. Robbed of their birthright—to soar in flights of golden pâte sucrée, ethereal meringue, shining glaze—they seemed glum and colorless, like some poor show poodle shorn nose-to- tail for medical reasons.
"The desserts look ... just ..."
—I could not check the momentum of my political incorrectness—
"... awful ..."
The young woman behind the counter laughed and promised that I'd love them. The chocolate cookie was straightforward, but the avocado-lime pie tasted like a wedge of dissident cream cheese from a Berkeley bagel shop. This is not to criticize the pastry chefs. They are attempting nothing less than alchemy. Whipping up tasty chocolate pudding is easy; whipping up tasty chocolate chia seed pudding is not.
Cafe Symmetry is unlikely to become an Elmo's-scale commercial juggernaut, but it will thrive within its niche. The key symmetry is not physical but human: a kitchen with a value system and a clientele that believes. The question is not how the kale salad tastes, but what it represents. It's a synecdoche for a fruited plain with windmills gracefully churning out clean energy in the distance; for recumbent bicycles shuttling through carless streets. Cafe Symmetry's clean, bright, green-accented space is a foretaste of this millennium.
On the way out, I ran into a silver-haired sport waiting curbside for his dinner companions.
"What do they have in there?" he asked.
"Oh, man! Does this mean I'm going to have to pit stop at Al's Burger Shack?"
"I'm afraid so, my friend."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Health food hits Carrboro."