It's pleasure enough to eat at the cheerful Plant Zero Cafe, where local art for sale hangs on the walls and glass roll-up doors provide a view of a burbling fountain. But when you factor in that the building also is home to Artspace and Plant Zero Art Center, housing dozens of small artists' studios, it registers as a certifiable hip destination.
Colorful walls, wooden tables, hanging lamps and kitschy plastic saltshaker sets combine for a playful atmosphere, which complements a simple but creative menu broken up into categories such as shareables, wraps and pitas, sandwiches, greens, and small bites.
Many of the dishes are standard fare, but lesser-seen plates such as cactus quesadilla ($7.95) sing with the flavors of cilantro, spicy chicken and yes, cactus. Less winning is Slim Daddy's holy jalapeño nacho supreme ($6.95), absent enough cheese to make them truly satisfying. A balsamic platter ($5.95) of sliced cucumbers, Roma tomatoes, olives and mozzarella is simple yet announces that summer has arrived.
Whether as a side, a starter or lunch, don't miss Noah's homemade (kind-of-a-big-deal) chili ($2.95 cup, $3.95 bowl, $1.50 side). Each spoonful is charged with subtle heat, red and white beans, hunks of onion and corn under a blanket of grated cheese. The only caveat is to stir before eating, because the meat settles to the bottom. Vegetarians and those seeking a light repast will gravitate to the Polynesian cowboy wrap ($5.95), a Southwestern fiesta of black bean and corn salsa, pineapple, lettuce and three cheeses. Diehard carnivores can add chicken for $2.
Speaking of flesh eaters, the satisfying swine and swiss ($6.95), barely contained in a pretzel roll oozing with dijonaise, lettuce, tomato and onion, is a solid winner. Chewy and a burnished brown color, those pretzel rolls pop up again on the menu on the Bavarian club and the roast beef melt with cheddar and horseradish. The Zero gyro's ($7.95) name has more pizazz than the warm pita with garlic chicken, feta, lettuce and tomato swimming in homemade tzatziki, which isn't bad, just sort of safe tasting.
It's the time of year for lighter eating and fitting into bathing suits, and Plant Zero obliges with a half-dozen salads in a range of flavor profiles. I'll be back for the portobello ($7.95), with its contrast in temperature — warm, grilled mushrooms and roasted red pepper over cool organic greens — with red onion and Gorgonzola to ensure you return to the office needing a breath mint. There's no denying the appeal of the Thai chicken salad ($7.95), a jungle of flavorful chicken, sprouts, crushed peanuts and cucumber over greens, all of which come to life with the addition of a spicy Thai dressing boasting subtle undertones of ginger and chili oil. Proving that you can overdo some things and never overdo others, the bacon Caesar ($5.95) wows with its generous topping of perfectly cooked bacon, but disappoints with its over-dressed romaine, each leaf dripping with dressing so that the flavor of the greens is lost entirely. Luckily, that's an easy enough error to correct.
Desserts are as simple as the décor with a variety of cookies or fruit and yogurt parfait, but hold out for the homemade cupcakes whipped up by one of the servers. On my third visit, I lucked into chocolate with raspberry filling and white chocolate icing topped by one perfect berry, a charming end to the meal.
A server who does the baking for the restaurant is indicative of the friendly charm of Plant Zero. The menu tells you that Noah's chili is kind of a big deal because it is. The cheese and fruit platter called the Dionysus feast instructs you to "enjoy with a glass of wine, the gods insist!" The PB&J croissant also is offered as the Obama special — or PB&H, a wry nod to his campaign opponent Mitt Romney's favorite snack, peanut butter and honey.
Service is good-natured and quick. Nothing takes long to come out to the table so I appreciate it when a server asks whether I want my courses staggered. I do, because the view is good and the vibe is welcoming. Best of all, there's all that art to see next door. S
Plant Zero Cafe
Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
3 E. Third St.