Restaurant Review #228: M Cafe, Culver City

Tuna tataki salad - $11.25

M Cafe in Culver City is one of a small chain of three macrobiotic restaurants in Los Angeles (the other two are in Beverly Hills and Hollywood). If you're not a health food nut or a vegetarian, you might be turned off by the idea of a place that only serves macrobiotic food--you won't find any refined sugars, eggs, dairy, red meat, or poultry on the menu--but the chefs have created each dish with the intention of appealing to all palettes, and in that I think they've succeeded (as long as you're the type of meat-eater who can live without a hamburger for a little while).

Most of the food is attractively arranged in well-lit display cases so you can see exactly what you're ordering. As much as I usually dislike display-case food, in this case I think it's a good idea. People unfamiliar with macrobiotic food, who aren't sure what they'll be getting into if they order barbecued seitan (a tasty meat substitute) or scarlet quinoa (a grain not unlike couscous, in this case colored and flavored with beet juice), can check it out. And my strawberry shortcake didn't have that stale flavor that's usually the bane of display case food.

But there are plenty of familiar items on the menu for the less adventurous. There are sushi rolls made with organic seafood and sold two bites at a time for $2.25 or $2.75; french fries (with shiso, nori, and sea salt) and sweet potato fries (with chili, sea salt, and lime); panini of the day; and a club sandwich (facon can't be that bad, right?).

Drink options include fresh-squeezed juices (kale lemonade, anyone? I prefer to saute my leafy greens, thanks, but my friend swears by the stuff), natural sodas, teas, mate, and--thank goodness-macrobiotic does not mean going without caffeine, so I ordered an iced coffee (it does, unfortunately, mean no milk or cream--only soy, almond, or rice milk, sorry). The coffee had the color of iced tea (I prefer the black sludge variety) but tasted blessedly stronger than it looked. There's free, self-serve water (LA County water, I presume) near the front door if you'd rather not pay for Fiji or "M Cafe Water."

Ordering is a bit difficult if you don't already know what you want since you walk in and order at the register without the benefit of sitting down and perusing a menu. There are large menus on the wall and printed ones near the cash register, but I find it hard to think on the spot, and the display case can be hard to see if the place is crowded. I had an easier time because I'd looked at the menu online beforehand. You'll get a number after you order and a server will bring your food to your table.

Strawberry shortcake - $6.25

I ordered something safe--the tuna tataki salad and a strawberry shortcake. I haven't been to a farmers market in a while and had forgotten how delicious fresh produce--creamy, sweet avocado, cucumber, mixed greens, a handful of spouts, and some marinated lotus root--can be. The marinated, seared tuna was of the quality you'd expect from a good sushi restaurant and paired nicely with the sparingly used, not-too-spicy wasabi mayo. The ponzu vinaigrette had the right balance of sweet and salty with a tinge of sour. My only complaint is that I wasn't full after eating it, but a salad is a salad, even if it is an entree.

That's where the strawberry shortcake came in. You'd never guess that it was made without refined sugar. Nothing seemed like it was missing. The cake was very light--you won't feel weighed down after eating it like you would after, say, a molten lava cake at Chili's. Not that I would know. And after such a light lunch, I was definitely hungry for a hearty meal of pad Thai that evening.

The dining room is airy, with high, open ceilings, white walls, plenty of large windows, and rustic wood floors and furniture. There are a smattering of outdoor tables, if you don't mind the sidewalk and street traffic. The glossy photo menus add a corporate vibe to a place that otherwise feels cozy, if a bit chaotic--like most places on the Westside, the tables are close together, and the space is long and narrow. The prices are pretty standard for a Westside lunch cafe, with most entrees priced between $8.50 and $11.25, but at $22 total for my salad, dessert, and coffee plus tax, there's no way I could eat here on a regular basis. The no-waiter aspect--and hence, no 20% tip--does help keep the total cost down. You can also buy their food at some Whole Foods stores.

I honestly wasn't expecting much from this restaurant, but I left quite happy with the flavors of everything and the knowledge that I'd eaten a healthy meal, even if I wasn't terribly full.

M Cafe
9343 Culver Boulevard
Culver City, CA 90232
M Cafe website
M Cafe menu
Sunday through Thursday
9:00 am - 9:00 pm
Friday & Saturday
9:00 am - 10:00 pm

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