Sunflower Vegetarian Restaurant is proof that you should not judge a book by its cover. After noticing the restaurant's sign many times as we navigated the treacherous Seven Corners intersection, we finally decided to check it out. Judging by the sign and the outside of the restaurant, Sunflower looks like a standard cafe.
As you enter, you're greeted with an impressively tacky yet wonderful display of sunflowers on every surface. You might feel as if you've stepped into a Mary Engelbreit calendar. After we were seated, B asked me if I'd read about any of their popular dishes. His eyes grew wide when I told him that they are famous for their General Tso's stirfry. "Huh?" said B as he eyed the decor, "this is an Asian place?" Sunflower shatters all stereotypes about what Asian food can be and what kind of dining room it should be served in.
We tried the aforementioned General Tso's Surprise (chunks of soy protein in a hot kung pao sauce garnished with carrots and broccoli) and the Sweet and Sour Sensation (soy protein with chunks of pineapple, zucchini, and carrots in a sweet and sour sauce). These are two dishes we'd likely never order at a standard Chinese joint, but I'd read rave reviews about them. I'm glad we listened to the people. Instead of drowning in heavy sauces, these dishes were lovingly blanketed with bold yet somehow light sauces. The vegetables, often a mushy afterthought, were crisp and begging to be eaten. The soy protein in the General Tso's was crispy on the outside and silky soft on the inside, and was the kind of dish that makes me think I could handle being a vegetarian. The sauce on the Sweet and Sour Sensation was spot-on, but the preparation for the soy protein left it a little on the mushy/chewy side. You wouldn't mistake this dish for meat but it might be a welcome curveball.
I washed down this delightful meal with the Vitality juice featuring celery, carrot, and apple. You can also create your own juice blend from a variety of fruits and veggies. As a final note, Sunflower serves brown rice with most dishes and I give kudos to the rice chef for dishing up a perfectly textured bowl of brown rice. We make a lot of brown rice at our house and I will happily admit that Sunflower's rice would dominate ours in a head-to-head matchup.
I'd love to hear your menu recommendations for Sunflower. It's one of those menus where everything looks intriguing and I don't know what to try next. Guess we'll just have to make a lot more trips to Virginia to try it all.
Second Thoughts from B
To borrow from the immortal Monty Python, "And now for something completely different..."
I spent New Years 2004 in Seattle. Several things jump out at me from that trip. The lousy weather and series of delayed flights to get there, the absence of my new girlfriend J, hours upon hours playing Golden Tee, a depressing showing by Michigan in the Rose Bowl, a wonderfully cavernous REI store, the search for Seattle Seahawks memorabilia for my French labmate, and a particularly interesting piece of modern art.
As with any New Years trip, there is a story behind each of these memories, but let me focus on the art exhibit. In a modern, white room sat three white pedestals, with three small TVs at eye level. Each TV was playing a close-up of the Asian artist as he recited Beastie Boys lyrics. The point of the piece was to highlight the juxtaposition of an Asian man celebrating the work of a Jewish group that rose to the top of a typically African American art form. It made you think about race, cultural boundaries, and the concept of ownership and normalcy.
Now, 7 years later, I've encountered a similar mash-up in the form of the Sunflower Vegetarian Restaurant. Set in a country kitchen that would typically produce a buttery steak or savory meatloaf, we were served Asian dishes that celebrated vegetables and healthy living. At the risk of getting a bit preachy, this dining experience - like that art exhibit in Seattle - showed what amazing things that can be achieved when we allow ourselves to think outside of the norm and combine the best of our different backgrounds. Maybe the people behind Sunflower are visionaries showing us the way to a greater future. Maybe they're just regular people trying to make a buck by doing something new. Either way, I'm sure to remember this deliciously odd eatery for many years to come.