If dropped off at the south end of Weber Street, you might believe you've stepped back in time. The revitalized lower-downtown community created by Lowell Development has invited businesses into the first floors of three-story townhomes, with many owners living above their shops. Almost everything you need is within walking distance.
Hence the space for a corner café. The catch: Designers failed to include some basic restaurant kitchen needs. Without grease-traps and a hood there can be no cooking on-site, and with a limited power supply an automatic dishwasher's also out of the question. These limitations initially turned off Dave McIntosh, but he and Jeff Weller — the partners behind Montague's Coffee House, just a couple blocks south — eventually opted to work around the kinks with an elegant new venture.
Sunflower Café mixes soothing sea-foam green walls with the rich, earthy texture of beautiful, straight-back, woven-banana-leaf chairs. From the utensils to the cups, plates and even the straws, everything is made of vegetable matter and is biodegradable.
And as for Sunflower's menu, McIntosh enlisted Montague's kitchen for double-duty. With an eye toward gluten-free and whole-grain pastry options, Montague's now prepares 13 new items, plus fresh soups, that employees transport the few blocks to Sunflower.
After sampling some half-dozen pastries (all under $3), I was pleased by Sunflower's ability to add healthy ingredients without compromising taste. An orange scone highlighted the offerings; the addition of yogurt kept it moist, and the flecks of rind were a flavorful touch. Another winner was the mesquite crumb cake. Looking for gluten-free flours, McIntosh stumbled across mesquite pods (from the same plant as the chips used in grilling and smoking) that, when ground into flour, give a nutty and slightly chocolaty flavor with plenty of fiber.
With all the healthy touches, he says, you can "have your cake and eat it, too."
The small lunch menu boasts high-quality build-your-own sandwiches ($9) with tasty spreads and gourmet veggie chips. The spinach, avocado and grapefruit salad ($6) came perfectly dressed in a sesame and poppy seed dressing, with cran-raisins and slivered almonds. Delicious, though I could have used more avocado. The chilled gazpacho ($4.50), filled with tomato, celery, onion and cucumber, made for a great, light summer soup. In the roasted red pepper bisque (also $4.50), I missed the cream, a casualty of all soups being vegetarian and dairy-free.
Sunflower does have a few areas in which it's showing its newness. The orzo, green bean and shallot salad ($6) needs some rethinking, or better execution: Ours came dry, virtually flavorless and lacking dressing. And the green beans tasted like they were on their way out that day.
Still, this thoughtful café is looking toward a bright future. With a liquor license on the way, McIntosh and Weller hope to convert to the Moonflower wine bar by night, pairing fine wines with light appetizers, which I suspect will be welcomed by Lowell residents and visitors alike.