Over frothy-headed cappuccinos and fragrant homemade chai, card-carrying members of the East Side intelligentsia bust their moves. Shaggy-haired academics in rumpled khakis and tweed sport coats twitter over the latest departmental flap. A serious Asian grad student pores over a thick stack of papers pulled from his battered briefcase. And postmodern feminists, with high cheekbones, hemp bracelets, and scant makeup, ponder life after menopause and carefully dust scone crumbs from the fronts of their J. Jill jackets.
It's enough to make a visitor think she's stumbled onto the set of Annie Hall. But it's not a peek into the lives of self-involved New Yorkers; it's just another day at Café Limbo, Carol Fitzgerald and Heidi Rivchun's popular vegetarian restaurant and coffeehouse near Shaker Square.
It may or may not shed any light on the café's unique flavor to note that Fitzgerald, a native Clevelander and former sous chef at legendary Earth by April, spent 28 years as a chef and artist in New York before returning to her hometown. She came back with a yen for a little spot to call her own and the belief that the already arty neighborhood along Larchmere Boulevard, with its galleries, antiques stores, and restaurants, could use a funky N.Y.C.-style café to complete the gestalt. To that end, she and Rivchun located a handsome old house, filled with leaded glass, broad oak moldings, and hardwood floors; installed a minuscule kitchen and order counter; hired a few sober staffers; and launched the Limbo in the spring of 2002.
Fitzgerald says she chose the name not as a reference to purgatory or a Caribbean dance fad, but rather to evoke an image of being temporarily removed from daily tribulations. And even during a busy lunch hour, Café Limbo is indeed a relatively tranquil oasis. Behind the counter, reasonably efficient staffers eschew idle pleasantries, preferring to concentrate on taking orders, blending smoothies, and drizzling zesty cucumber-wasabi ranch dressing on crisp green salads. The customers, too, are more likely to be studying, reading, or grading papers than whooping it up with rowdy companions. But while both staff and clientele seem notably earnest, any sense of solemnity dissipates with Limbo's decor, a smile-inducing smorgasbord of elements both charming and peculiar.
The three dining areas, for instance -- two in what were probably the original living and dining rooms, and one in the sunny former kitchen -- are outfitted in the finest flea-market fashion, with a hodgepodge of tables and chairs ranging from Victorian treasures to the vinyl-and-Formica numbers that Grandma disposed of 40 years ago. Then there's the ornate mantel of golden oak that frames a beautiful built-in fireplace; but rather than a period-appropriate wreath or flower arrangement, the ornamental topper is a curvy piece of three-dimensional op art that seems straight out of the '60s. Even the café's table lamps represent a merry mélange of styles and eras: One in the fashion of Tiffany, one a star-studded Colonial Revival type, and a third crafted from the silver-plated head of a bug-eyed alien, topped by a cobalt-blue lampshade.
And that barely scratches the surface. The tidy unisex restroom rates a grin, for instance, for its unexpected trio of periwinkle commode, pink pedestal sink, and striking Eastlake mirror. Background music ranges from mellow new-age noodling to soulful funk, depending on the hour of day and staffers' whims. Also, someone appears to be inordinately fond of Christmas lights: They trim two large topiaries, cover the ceiling of the broad front porch, and -- along with crystals and a shiny glass harvest of pickles and peppers -- take the place of curtains at the front windows.
Behind the café, there's a pretty little garden, planted with strawberries and herbs, and a small patio equipped with assorted umbrella-topped tables. Sadly, it was too chilly for alfresco dining on the days we visited, so we took our meals indoors, sometimes eavesdropping on other guests, sometimes plowing through our stack of unread newspapers, and sometimes just losing ourselves in the flavors of Fitzgerald's unusual homemade soups.
Along with other daily specials, the creative soups of the day are listed on brown paper bags that are taped to the countertop. (The standard menu, incidentally, is written on dry-erase boards, which hang above the counter; easier-to-read carryout versions are tucked beside the cash register, though guests may find them hard to spot until they've already placed their orders and anted up.) Like one day's sinus-clearing confluence of carrot, ginger, cilantro, and peanut, the savory soups are developing a well-deserved reputation for their out-of-the-ordinary flavor combos. Take as further evidence the riotous riff on mulligatawny: a Pakistani-inspired potion with a sleek, chutney-and-curry-flavored base, crammed with tender sliced apple and cauliflower, sweet raisins, and nutty garbanzo beans. Soups are served with a thick slice of Orlando white bread and one pat of foil-wrapped butter. Add a crunchy salad of mixed baby greens -- shredded cabbage and carrots, grape tomatoes, and sliced black olives, sprinkled with sunflower seeds à la Earth by April, and topped with that complex, creamy cucumber-wasabi dressing -- and you have a simple meal as wholesome and satisfying as any in the city.
But while the soups we sampled were uniformly first-rate, beware the vegetarian chili: Even topped with rennet-free cheddar, it tasted more like beans in spaghetti sauce than a hearty bowl of red. Other offerings also had their ups and downs. Among the sandwiches, for instance, winners included the lush, savory combo of roasted red peppers, feta, and pesto on thick slices of herby focaccia; and a zesty pileup of artichoke hearts, black olives, roasted red pepper, pesto, and an odd but inoffensive rennet-free Swiss cheese, served warm on ciabatta bread. A spinach, pine nut, and feta pizza, on a light, crisp-edged crust, was also an appealing tango of tastes and textures. But a big falafel patty, on a toasted sesame-seed bun, was unreasonably dry. Although we slathered it with the mild lime-avocado sauce that came on the side, it clearly could have used further moisturizing, perhaps in the form of a thick tomato slice and a juicy leaf of lettuce.
Well-seasoned spinach lasagna is a menu mainstay, and with its mellow interplay of cheese, sauce, and veggies, there's no surprise that it's a keeper. However, one day's "special" entrée, a good-looking wedge of puffy frittata, with cauliflower, Brie, and fresh rosemary, had a flavor quotient that fell somewhere between "subtle" and "dull." Worse, it had become dry as it sat, uncovered, on the counter, where it joined a small coterie of mostly homemade muffins, scones, brownies, cookies, and cakes that also suffered occasionally from various degrees of staleness. In fact, one evening's rich-looking chocolate cake turned out to be so desiccated that, when we choked on the first bite, a pouf of fine crumbs escaped from our lungs like dust from an overfilled sweeper bag.
Simple breakfasts, such as bagels, granola, and oatmeal with raisins, are served any time of day. A batch of scrambled eggs (from grain-fed, free-range chickens) was prepared with a light touch and finished with plenty of salt and pepper; their sidekick, a warm popover seasoned with cheddar and faux bacon (textured soy protein), was plump and fresh.
Limbo staffers brew a mighty espresso, an exemplary cappuccino, and full-flavored regular and decaf coffees. Aromatic homemade chai was cold, creamy, and unsweetened, and the café also stocks nine types of regular and herbal teas, available by the cup or pot. Unfortunately, the carrot juice had run out on the days we visited, and although the selection of fruit smoothies sounded enticing (strawberries and banana, for instance, or a mango, banana, nutmeg, and milk version), the blended drinks turned out to be thin, with too much ice and not enough flavor.
Fitzgerald says she's trying to obtain a beer and wine license, and while patrons will undoubtedly look forward to pleasant summer evenings on the patio, a glass of Chardonnay in hand, it may raise questions about the proper wine to drink with falafel, or the appropriate beer to quaff with egg salad. Our advice? Just do your thing. At Café Limbo, nonconformity is the order of the day.