Vegans must be a patient lot. Either that or they’re willing to put up with all sorts of complications just as long as there’s some meat-free food waiting for them on the other end. Our group, while in no hurry whatsoever, found ourselves mired down in a morass of sluggish service at Water Garden Café, which opened near the Lorain Avenue Antiques District in February.
It certainly is an attractive space, a bright and airy double storefront that has been meticulously renovated. Ancient wide-plank wood flooring is balanced by a modern stacked stone fountain, ironically bone-dry given the restaurant’s moniker. A lengthy wood-slab bar is also bone dry as Water Garden has no liquor license, and frowns upon diners toting in their own.
The menu is a small but eclectic mix of meaty and meat-free options ranging from starters like vegetable tempura and vegan tamales to a grilled beet burger and chicken flautas. There are also the requisite vegan items that make use of the figurative parentheses, like “meat” balls with sauce, squash “noodle” pasta with marinara, and “bacon,” lettuce and tomato sandwiches.
We heartily enjoyed our bowl ($6) of lentil soup, a thin broth with warm spices and fresh vegetables. The house tamales ($6) looked promising when they landed on the table, with twin corn husks filled with dough topped with black beans, pickled onion, roasted veggies and avocado cream. Unfortunately, the dough (cornmeal?) was cold and pasty and the toppings never really came together.
I’ll be the first to admit that the roasted beet burger ($11) was a surprise hit, a substantial burger substitute paired with top-notch french fries. We could have done without the “black bean aioli,” which we all agreed was simply the water that one drains from a can of black beans. A colorful and vibrant mound of crisp zucchini and squash ribbons ($12) is set atop a fresh tomato marinara. It’s a nice, summery dish that’s appealing in its simplicity.
Oddly enough (or not), it was the non-vegan options that made the best impressions. There’s a damn fine grass-fed beef burger ($11) topped with swiss, lettuce and tomato and sided by those same great fries. And the chicken flautas ($12), four crispy-fried tortillas rolled around juicy dark meat chicken and capped with sour cream and all the fixings, went over with a bang.
There is no denying that the service is sweet and meaningful, but with just one staffer doing the job of host, waiter and cook, it also is amateurish. We waited for seemingly ever, while our water glasses remained bone-dry, as the lone employee prepared our four-top’s food. We wondered aloud what might have happened if we weren’t the only diners.
Management also made a point of talking up breakfast, lunch and brunch service with our table, but when I called on a recent Friday morning the phone rang and rang unanswered. The restaurant business is brutal, especially given the stiff competition. Water Garden has a product that people want, but they’ll need to tighten up their execution game to succeed.
Water Garden Café
7646 Lorain Ave., Cleveland