April 29, 2004

Finger Lake'n Good

Print More

I would like to dedicate this, my last article for the Cornell Daily Sun to Elliot Shapiro in the Writing Institute, who patiently coaxed thoughtful and confident words about food out of me and onto paper.

Foodies, eaters, soup-lovers of all ages, read: The Temple of Zeus in Goldwin Smith Hall makes the best soup in Ithaca. But don’t just take my word for it, consider the evidence. I’ve spotted many an English and anthropology professor buying bowls full of Cauliflower Curry and Ratatouille. I’ve even seen — gasp — Hotel School students pop in for a quick cup, bypassing the three paltry food outlets in their own building for the magic of Zeus.

Also consider the fact that when Zeus runs out of soup by 12:30 P.M. (!), patrons have been known to throw fits. Those in the know come early: The kitchen opens at 11 A.M., so adjust your schedule accordingly. Note that Zeus is not affiliated with Cornell Dining, so don’t plan on using Big Red Bucks. Their independent status allows the cooks and manager of The Temple of Zeus freedom to make soup from scratch instead of using those gluey mixes found at lesser dining establishments.

Named after statues from a Grecian temple that used to be stored in the space, The Temple of Zeus has been around for some 40 years. According to manager Thomas Walls, who has headed the restaurant for almost ten years, Zeus started out as common space for students and faculty. “One day, someone brought in a coffee maker … pretty soon they were ordering donuts everyday,” Walls mused, “By the time I took over, it was pretty much a soup and sandwich place already.” But that soup was out of a can, according to Walls, and the sandwiches were of the pre-wrapped, generic sort.

Hailing from Moosewood Restaurant, Walls eventually turned the place into The Zeus of today, bringing in Tibetan cooks Choklay Lhamo and Nyima Dhondp to help him keep up with the growing demand, and starting a tradition of flavorful soups. Making soup is easy; making delicious, mouthwatering soup is more difficult. Popular among a solid group of devotees, Zeus isn’t something your average vending-machine-fed engineer would know about. That’s too bad, because it’s something every Cornell student and faculty should experience at least once during their time here.

When Walls started selling the soup, he had no idea how strongly it would catch on. With funding from Arts and Sciences, he’s been able to expand from humble hot-plate beginnings to a modest kitchen, but the demand keeps growing while his stovetop doesn’t. “There’s only so much room on the stove!” Walls admitted about the lack of soup, “At some point I had to say, ‘okay, I can’t make any more than this.'” The Temple of Zeus also offers a great sandwich made from your choice of house-made tuna salad, egg salad, a variety of cured meats, cheeses, and hummus and seitan. Salads are equally varied, but nothing beats the soup. All of the soups are vegetarian, but vegetarians and carnivores alike have learned to appreciate the complex beauty that can be found in a cup of Zeus soup. Charming the flavor out of stubborn vegetables isn’t always easy, but the chefs at Zeus make it look like child’s play. In Creamy Potato Cabbage, the humblest of vegetables are transformed into a velvety elegance. Gentle heat brings out the lively essences of tarragon, dill, rosemary, and parsley in Herbed Potato. When one lifts the lid off of a cup of Potage Plaisance, one is greeted by the soft, tangy aroma of saffron, which flavors and colors the tomato base thickened by rice. Tibetan Lentil, clearly a nod to the chefs, eases the sweetness out of onions, celery, and carrots. Spices like coriander and cumin add levels of flavor, cilantro adds a peppery scent, and lentils provide the basic soothing texture. Cuban Black Bean, hearty and filling, needs no accompaniment. Who knew carrots could be so exciting in the gingered Thai Carrot soup? I’m partial to the Crema de Elot