You’re greeted like a very important bird, with a bowl of seed crackers: sunflower, chia, sesame, and flax in shining crisps so delicate that they can barely manage to scoop up fresh pea mash. Birds love seed crackers because birds love seeds. Me, I’m a woman. I like to eat bread.
But here, in a breezy corner of the West Village at Cafe Clover, surrounded by beautiful people, the crackers almost took on the qualities of an elegant, salty cocktail snack, ideal for nibbling while you wait for heftier things to arrive.
Things do not get that much heftier. Cafe Clover has packaged its health-conscious food into a sleek and pretty restaurant, and it attracts a sleek and pretty clientele—young, white women with vintage denim jackets over colorful sun dresses, men with almost all their buttons open over fuzzy, tanned chests. Fashion people, art people, and stylish-enough muggles you could mistake for either. These diners know that you don’t have to modify your order here to get something that passes as healthy. All the defaults at Cafe Clover are set to grainy chic.
David Rabin, partner at the Lambs Club, opened the restaurant with Kyle Hotchkiss Carone and Jeff Kadish. David Standridge, who was formerly a sous chef at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon and executive chef at Market Table, is in the kitchen, where he puts polished white hemp seeds on the biscuits at brunch, serves rye berries with the soft shell crab, and uses teff grains to build an alternative Mille Crêpes cake.
Sometimes, with no warning, a confetti of sunflower seeds appears on your salad, which seems like someone’s idea of a party. The restaurant is keen on all sorts of undervalued grains, on small portions of meat with larger portions of vegetables, and on clean living—in moderation. Though there’s plenty of juice—strained so it's smooth and bit-free—there is booze, too, deployed in a range of competent classic cocktails. The Beatnik, made with beet-infused vodka and spiked with ginger, offers you the best of both worlds.
There are obvious limits to the greatness of a chopped salad, but Cafe Clover does give it a makeover (without adding cheese or bacon, which can turn any old heap of leaves into something edible). There are wee florets of yellow and purple cauliflower, mushrooms that have been sautéed in olive oil, and of course, more seeds to remind you that it doesn’t matter what you did to your poor body all week. Tonight you are treating it well.
The grilled chicken breast is hammered flat, aggressively marinated and seared, then hidden under a giant pile of salad greens. This is getting awfully close to spa food, but at least it’s from a spa that cares about how things taste and doesn’t want the chicken-salad set to suffer. The dish is well-seasoned, the leaves crisp and clean, well-dressed. If you’re going to have a grilled chicken salad, you could do so much worse than this one.
The best dishes at Cafe Clover go beyond spa fare. Take the lentil risotto: Those tiny white lentils, known to millions as urud dal, are commonly pulverized and fermented to make dosa—the killer Indian dish that looks like a pancake—or boiled into a spicy, soupy stew. At Cafe Clover, they’re treated more like rice and cooked until thick and tender, until the starch goes almost buttery, and then topped with morels and fresh peas. The texture of the lentil is chewier than short-grain rice, and it's totally delightful.
Sometimes the kitchen’s restraint does result in a lack of flavor. This is clearest in such dishes as the quinoa pasta, which has an unfortunate squidge and a slippery exterior. Maybe every restaurant has a careless vegetarian dish, even the ones that cater to vegetable lovers?
Desserts are full of surprises. A stack of thin grey pancakes made from teff grains, enclosing a little mascarpone, is like a sophisticated, gluten-free wedding cake: elegant and celebratory. No, it’s not as smooth and tall and impossibly airy as the version made with finely milled wheat flour over at Lady M. It’s got character—a bite and a droop, like the most charming mutt at the pound—but with a dribble of very bitter chocolate sauce and a small scoop of coffee ice cream, it's impressive. The almond milk panna cotta is barely set; it's a ghostly, nearly see-through shade of white. Unsteady under the weight of rose petal jam and crushed almonds and lean in texture, it carries surprisingly rich, floral notes.
There are a lot of things on Cafe Clover’s menu that will sound a bit dodgy to anyone who hasn’t been sprouting mung beans in the dehydrator, or replacing wheat flours with grittier variations. Made with enough care, some of these things are likable. And for those who aren’t ready to give seeds a chance, there’s a strip steak with mashed potatoes saturated in buttery olive oil. And a fat, juicy, mid-rare hamburger, too, its edges sticky with melted cheese. This is served between pieces of seed-free bread. Just don’t get your hopes up too high: It comes with a salad.
Café Clover is at 10 Downing Street (West Village); +1 212 675-4350 or cafeclovernyc.com
Rating: 1/4 Stars (Good)
What to Order: Scallop crudo ($15); Ivory lentil risotto ($16); Beef burger ($21); Celery root and rutabaga salad ($9); Strawberry-rhubarb tart ($9)
Who’s Next to You: Beautiful grainy-chic women from lower Manhattan, in packs of four and six; Men who stir butter into their coffee and prefer not to wear shoes; Bone-broth truthers