Update: CLOSED December 2011
It is with genuine regret that I cannot write a glowing review of what is currently State College’s lone vegetarian-only spot. Even after visiting 3 times over the past year and a quarter I still can’t even call it a restaurant.
Please allow this intro to do two things; may it invite and inform. I invite comments in line or to the contrary of my own, whether during the same time frame as my visits or in the future. I also aim to inform readers who have an interest in knowing what I, a vegetarian of 35 years and Central PA resident for a half a century, have experienced first hand.
As an adult, have you ever been to a little kid’s tea party? As you sit in a cramped chair or on the floor, demi tassi cups get accidentally spilled, the tea might really be water or not exist at all and the hostess might lick the spoon between serving honey to each guest. What you get out of the experience is more than an uncomfortable chair, germ covered spoon and imaginary food because you care. You are patient and will even pretend to enjoy it a little more than you really do because, after all, it’s a kid.
I can no longer try to enjoy The Enchanted Kitchen for what it is or pretends to be. It has cost more than for the price of a locally grown artisan meal; it’s cost me my patience.
Late May of 2010 was the first time we tried to go to Enchanted Kitchen. Jim and I happened to notice the sign on the door going to the Lotus Center Yoga but the door was locked. We made it a point to do a little research, found out very little but soon after a brand new web page popped up.
The hours and days were erratic, sometimes coinciding with yoga hours and sometimes with a limited menu. I read that they only accepted cash and joined the brand new FaceBook page to read what specials were popping up every other day.
Just after the Summer Solstice, I took a glance online at the hours of the day and made sure to first stop at the ATM and made my way to the Pugh St entrance. Outside was a sandwich-style chalk board with the specials of the day listed. I needed to make up my mind and get something to take to meet Jim in time for his lunch.
I am always shy about entering new spaces but I climbed up the steps and opened the door. It lead to a long descending staircase which ended at a sub-lobby by another set of doors. I could see inside that I had finally made it to The Enchanted Kitchen.
Another open lobby area was in front of me with a coffee table and some cushy chairs and a couch. It had a very Coffee Shop laid back feel to it. Off to my right were drawn gauze curtains which obscured what I sensed as a large open room that was dark and filled with people. I could hear meditative music and an instructor evenly talking.
Looking up and beyond the lobby was a U-shaped counter with retro diner-esque stools that were cool enough that you almost couldn’t tell that the space had been a bar and a club. In the center of the curved counter space was the center of Enchanted Kitchen’s universe, the owner, the kitchen and the food.
I didn’t venture any farther than the first available seat on the edge of the EK universe. Before I sat down I found out that food wasn’t being served that day until 11:30 and we were to use hushed tones during the babies’ (The Babies’!) yoga class.
In sotto voce I expressed an interest in ordering one of the specials from the chalkboard displayed street level.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t have that today, that was yesterday’s special. I didn’t get to change the board yet,” the owner apologized and told me what was available to order in a few minutes.
I chose one of the things she mentioned and ordered it to go. “Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t have any containers for that dish to go.”
I offered to go and get my own handy “to go” container from my bike bag and described the size of it. A baby from the yoga class bawled and the owner looked uncomfortable, “I’m afraid in that shape of a container I wouldn’t be able to present my food in the way it was meant to be seen.”
I grinned and tried to put her mind at ease, “It will all get mixed up in my stomach when I eat it anyway.” Another baby whimpered and a second customer bustled in for a pre-order of pâtè. The owner said she would be back to me in a moment.
I hadn’t been rushed when I first came in but I really needed to get this transaction moving and get across campus. I realized that ordering a meal to go was going to be out of the question so I decided to order a Ginger Apple Smoothie and grab some soup as I buzzed across campus, I even had my thermoses for it.
The woman getting the pâtè and owner quietly chatted like they were close friends and had a lot of catching up to do. I sat there, uncomfortable but trying to find peace and acceptance of spending 1/2 hour to get a drink.
As the owner finished packaging the pâtè, I guessed that from the shape of the containers that it’s presentation wasn’t as vital, she excitedly asked if the customer wanted to see her latest creation. She then pulled out a huge plate of coarsely grated strings of zucchini, “Zoodles! I just finished making them,” she declared as a yoga baby hiccuped in the adjoining room.
She finally returned to take my order and I pretended to enjoy the amount of time it took her to make 3 of the same smoothie. Both she and the other customer both decided that my choice sounded so good that they wanted one too.
I tried to be grateful for the healthy drink, paid in cash, tipped well and was resigned to never being able to rely on Enchanted Kitchen for lunch. How uncomfortable and sad it made me when I was secretly hoping it might work out as a regular choice.
The Germ Covered Spoon
It’s funny now that I look back on it to realize that Enchanted Kitchen tended to draw me in on the Solstices. The second visit was our 26th wedding anniversary and Jim was off for the Winter holidays.
I had been following the updated hours and specials on the FaceBook page. They added supper hours on some days, a new staff member and more food options. Reviews coming in from diners all warned of the long wait but raved about the food. EK was also set up for take out in December 2010. With the exception of occasionally whimsically closing with only a warning on Facebook, it seemed the place might be getting their act together.
We still had never had any of the food so, as a special treat for our anniversary, we set aside the afternoon EK was open from 11 – 2:30 the day we went. Knowing they sometimes have a slow start with actual serving of food and not wanting to be swamped by any lunch crowd, we chose to enter at 1:15 PM.
I planned on enjoying every bite and went hungry. Jim and I followed another couple down the staircase. They chose to sit at the counter but we, wanting to face each other and enjoy lingering, walked beyond the U to an area of tables and chairs.
There was another group of 4 there who seemed to be winding down their meal with hot beverages. They chatted animatedly about different rallies, marches and liberal fund-raising for groups they were sympathetic to.
The owner was again in her U-space putting together some food. She waited on the customers at the counter by giving them menus and water. It took her the better part of 10 minutes to touch base with us by waving in our direction and saying she would be right over.
I had warned Jim about the wait but we were both determined to get a vegetarian meal served to us on our anniversary. We looked around and I noticed some things were being remodeled. It looked like a wall was being built between the yoga classroom and the space used by Enchanted Kitchen. There were a lot of raw looking construction materials lying around, just off of the dining area.
Her hair flying behind her, the owner hustled over and gave us an apology and two menus, “I’m sorry,the other woman who normally helps me has left for the winter holidays so I am short-staffed. I will bring you some water as you look over you menus.” My second visit had started much like my first, with an apology.
We sat for 10 more minutes as we made our meal decisions. The Walnut Melt sandwiches advertised to be served with shredded carrots and granny smith apples. That with a warm cheddar sounded divine and Jim agreed, we were both getting hungry. We overheard the customers at the counter order the same kind of sandwiches and the owner offered bread choices that included a local Gemelli Baker’s Olive Bread – yum.
Twenty minutes finally landed me a water and the owner offered another apology as she took our orders. She didn’t offer the olive bread as choice so I admitted having overheard the couple at the counter and thought that combination sounded wonderful. She laughed nervously,”I guess we have come up with a new favorite combination!” Jim also ordered a Ginger Smoothie.
She flew back to her kitchen universe and was chopping and heating and preparing furiously. She had what seemed to be 4 plates ready to be served. I was excited since the couple, Jim and I had all ordered the same thing and was all ready to have the 4 sandwiches being made and served at the same time. Not too bad after a half an hour wait…
…but NO! It was four plates of food for that group in the corner who I had assumed were having an after meal chat!! That meant she hadn’t even gotten started our meals yet!! My stomach was growling!
Jim and I shook our heads and chuckled because this reflected every Yelp review that we had come across that said, “Don’t be in a rush” or “Don’t go hungry.” We thankfully weren’t in a rush but were really starting to get hungry.
It was about this time an off duty yoga instructor/ owner person came in to ask how things were going. The EK owner, to her benefit, kept hustling while she was talking. No dwelling over a newborn bowl of Zoodles today, she shared how she was really crunched since her staff went on holiday break. The yoga person went to do something on the yoga side of the building and after about 45 minutes from having entered EK, Jim got his smoothie. I was out of water and asked for some more.
For the next 20 minutes or so we had a fun time sipping the smoothie, overhearing conversations and watching constructions workers try to quietly sneak their supplies into the area. We assumed they were to be ready to start to get back to work at 2:30 PM and that was but a few minutes away.
It was just about then another couple came to sit at the counter, the table of 4 in the corner departed and the couple at the counter got served. I assumed since our order was identical to theirs that it couldn’t be far behind.
The yoga woman re-emerged to say goodbye but just before she pulled on her winter mittens, the owner told her that she had run out of Olive Bread and asked if could she go to Gemelli’s and get her some more. The woman was fine with that, since it’s really only outside and upstairs and was gone but 5 minutes.
Here is the disturbing part; she brought it back from outside of the store in her bare hands, not in a bag. She hadn’t cleaned her hands before departing and had handled at least 2 doorknobs in transit on her return. Our eyes bulged out a bit when we saw this and we started to wonder about the sanitary conditions of everything. Did the owner wash her hands after taking money since she was the only one doing food prep? What else were we not noticing?
The construction workers were appearing more and more frequently since we had passed the official closing time. They were getting antsy to start and were bringing in more boards and equipment and we still didn’t have our anniversary meal. It was like a parody and we refused to leave because we wanted to see the outcome.
We never did see the owner wash or disinfect her hands, it took us almost 2 hours from arrival to get our sandwiches (SANDWICHES!!) and as we paid we were showered with apologies. We felt more like inconveniences that customers she so readily posted that she held such “gratitude” for.
The food was just as good as everyone had said it would be but, as I said before, it came at a price higher than over-priced sandwiches that I could make exact replicas of at home in less than 2 hours. I would also get my Gemelli bread put into a bag until I got it home to wash my hands.
The Imaginary Food
Why did we ever return? How could I not!? I started compiling all of my foodie posts from other blogs and realized that a Central PA Vegetarian blog would be incomplete without a review of The Enchanted Kitchen. I know that so many in the center region, Centre, Mifflin, Snyder, Union, Juniata and Perry counties could really like the place. For those folk and to hold the flame throwers at bay, I needed to give it one more try.
On July 15th I read that EK was going to be open for business from 11AM – 6PM. A perfect window and we chose to go closer to 3PM to have a time when they wouldn’t be swamped. It was during the Central PA festival of the Arts so the owner should know that she needed to be staffed for a crowd. I figured with both the off time and over staffing that we would have no problem getting served in less than 2 hours.
Jim and I read the menu that was posted near the outside door before going down into the EK vortex. I thought a cup of Miso and to split a Nori Roll with Jim. He also wanted to try a cup of the Red Pepper Bisque.
We went down and sat at the same table as we did in December and laughed a little about that. There was only another couple at the counter and a woman at the back most table eating and tapping on the keyboard of her lap top.
There was one woman working behind the U-counter and she quickly came to take our order. We placed our order and the first thing she responded with… “I’m sorry…”
GAH! I am sorry for it ALL! I am Sorry to have gone back, I am sorry that everything I order is met with an apology, I am sorry I don’t like it, I AM SORRY! ok, to continue…
The waitress said, “I’m sorry, the woman who knows how to make the Nori Rolls just left.”
I looked confused and said I had read that EK was open from 11- 6. She confirmed that it was and we ordered our soup. The soups were great, they were amazing beyond belief except the Miso had too much raw garlic. I actually could review the food properly, hijiki and all, but what happened next spoiled my taste for that place all together.
That night the owner was expounding on how much gratitude she felt for meeting all of the new faces at arts fest on the EK Facebook page. I was tired of all the sunshine and lollipops talk and posted, “We were hoping for some Nori this afternoon. Seems we always come in when it’s understaffed.”
Her response, “Terri: I’m sorry that you felt that my cafe was understaffed. I had 2 women working in my one hour absence this afternoon. When were you here?”
As if MAYBE I wasn’t really there at all!? I wrote back, “I was there during a time one woman was taking a break (until I was paying my bill) and the other was untrained to make the Nori on the menu. This is the 3rd time I have visited and been met with apologies each time I order. Under staffed or under trained, you can choose. The sad part is I came today to round out a Central PA vegetarian blog I am writing.”
Her grateful response sealed the deal, “It’s unfortunate that you have had an unpleasant experience and that you made no mention of it until now. I choose to run my business with love, integrity and with the best energy that my staff and I have to offer. I take great joy in feeding this community, which has offered me much support and positive energy. I am filled with Gratitude for all who come here.”
I had no need to make mention of it because everyone was fully aware of the shortcomings thus the apologies each time, every moment along the way. Gratitude with a capital “G” is swell but it doesn’t solve a lot of the reoccurring problems Enchanted Kitchen has. It all feels more like someone’s hobby or like a kid’s tea party than a place to expect real food service of any kind.
I know that EK is probably dear to the hearts of a few who claim to enjoy the “groovy food” so I am aware I might rankle those loyal locals and some who have had positive experiences. Read above if you don’t understand my reasons for the low rating and feel free to comment below if your experience has been to the contrary (or similar for that matter) to my own. Knowledge is power and everyone’s opinion matters, not just the glowing ones.