Restaurant Review:

Shop's tasty quirks survived move

CorrespondentJuly 21, 2006 

  • Sunflower's

    8 W. Peace St., Raleigh, 833-4676

    Cuisine: World, vegetarian, sandwiches

    Rating: 2 1/2 stars

    Prices: $$

    Atmosphere: bright and airy

    Service: friendly and fast (counter service)

    Recommended: light entrees (menu changes every two weeks), sandwiches, desserts

    Open: Lunch Monday-Saturday, dinner Tuesday-Friday.

    Reservations: not accepted

    Other: cash and personal check only; wine; smoke-free; vegetarian-friendly; child-friendly; patio

    The N&O's critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories:

    4 stars: Extraordinary.

    3 stars: Excellent.

    2 stars: Good.

    1 star: Fair.

    Zero stars: Poor

    For descriptions and reviews of more restaurants, use the searchable restaurant database at http://triangle.com/dining/.

Ask a longtime inside-the-Beltliner about Sunflower's, and he'll probably tell you that the quaint little sandwich shop was a popular lunch spot on Glenwood South long before the area became trendy -- before it was even known as Glenwood South, for that matter.

He'll tell you about the restaurant's latter-day hippie vibe and its quirky menu -- vegetarian sandwiches on one side, meat sandwiches on the other. He might recommend a personal favorite --the Blue Max, say, featuring veggies, blue cheese dressing and havarti on grilled sunflower seed bread - and he'll advise you to go early if you want to get one of Sunflower's killer lemon bars before the supply runs out.

But if this particular downtown denizen hasn't been to Sunflower's lately, he'll probably send you to the wrong place. After nearly a quarter-century at its original location, the restaurant moved last year to roomier digs on Peace Street. The new dining room is brighter and airier than its earthy predecessor, with lots of patio seating and a drive-through window for takeout orders.

Longtime fans will be glad to know that the antique buffet that had served as a cutlery and condiment station survived the move, as did much of the friendly, laid-back spirit that made Sunflower's popular in the first place. You still order at the counter and wait for your name to be called, and the service is as quick and friendly as ever. Except for the addition of a handful of grilled sandwiches (rib-eye on Cuban baguette and barbecued chicken on sourdough, to name two), the sandwich menu remains almost unchanged, right down to the illustrations "by Quinn, age 6." And the lemon bars are as tart and gooey as ever.

By far the biggest change at the new Sunflower's is that it now serves dinner Tuesday through Friday nights from 5 to 8 p.m. To create a menu of light, wholesome entrees in keeping with the Sunflower's spirit, owners Deborah and Clay Ferebee hired Kristine Woods, whose 20-year resume includes Fearrington Cafe and Whole Foods Market kitchens all over the Southeast.

Woods' offering is brief to a fault - usually just four listings (five on Thursday nights, when head sandwich maker Salvadore Gonzales chips in with a Latino special such as Caribbean rib-eye with crabmeat and chipotle cream) - but it's varied, and the selection changes every two weeks. The offerings are especially appealing this time of year, as Woods takes advantage of the summer harvest.

The current menu, for instance, lists a "Southern summer sampler" that features cold pickled shrimp (gently punctuated with dill, they're surprisingly delicate), fried green tomatoes and a lemony medley of orecchiette, fresh green peas and pine nuts. The dish is as delightfully refreshing as it sounds. So is grilled yellowfin tuna salad, a toothsome tumble of roasted eggplant, tomatoes, fennel, red onion, crispy prosciutto, buttery croutons and moist, rosy-centered tatters of tuna in a rustic anchovy-caper vinaigrette.

If you're in a red-meat mood, the 8-ounce Philly steak burger is juicier than any burger cooked medium-well has a right to be (the secret, it turns out, is Dijon mustard and Worcestershire sauce mixed gently into the patty before cooking). I'd steer clear of the spice-rubbed pork tenderloin if you like a little pink in your pork, though it's tempting to order it anyway, just for the excellent zucchini and yellow squash gratin that comes with it.

The menu changes again next week, but judging by my samplings of past offerings ranging from Low Country gumbo to Thai-inspired grilled chicken salad, it's sure to be as eclectic an offering as can be packed into four listings. Your chances of getting a dud are pretty slim, too. The only one I encountered was a mezze platter that included undercooked shrimp and a strangely dry and crumbly falafel.

Sunflower's still sells out of the lemon bars, but any of the kitchen's homey pastries, from carrot cake to seven-layer bar, ought to put a smile on your face. And, since entrees are in the $8 to $12 range, that smile should turn into a grin when you pay the bill.

Just remember to bring cash or a check because those are the only forms of payment accepted. That's another thing that hasn't changed about Sunflower's.

Greg Cox can be reached at ggcox@bellsouth.net.

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