May 4, 2011

Cheese, Hipsters and a Ball Pit: New Café Is Eclectic Oasis

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On a recent Tuesday night, Culture Shock could easily have been mistaken for an Urban Outfitters sans clothing racks, complete with wall collages, kitsch-filled bookshelves and slim, stylish clientele. Between shifts, scruffy staff members blew smoke rings outside while a fedora-topped patron lounged apathetically on a sofa. The McDonald’s-style ball pit kept a few young hipsters-to-be entertained.

The wheat-, gluten- and meat-free menu at the 109 S. Cayuga St. café is limited largely to salads, which staff make to order. New customers may find the list of possible ingredients bewildering — pineapple, candied ginger and coconut raisins all make an appearance. Fortunately, Culture Shock also offers a selection of suggested salads, and what wise suggestions they are.

The Mucho Queso Lindo salad ($9) showcases local raw milk cheddar atop a bed of mixed greens and accompanied by black beans, carrots and avocado. The black beans add substance to the salad, making it surprisingly filling. Diners find themselves dreaming of more cheese as they pick nostalgically at the stalks of romaine that are left behind.

The Sweet and Salty salad ($8) is another risk well worth taking. The dish is a dramatic sight, the deep red of Culture Shock’s “ruby kraut” gleaming beside crisp leaves of arugala and baby spinach. The “sweet” elements of the salad are certainly its greatest strength — plump raisins and apple cubes are unexpected, juicy delights. The salty “kraut,” however, is more thrilling for the eyes than the taste buds.

The most intriguing of Culture Shock’s innovations is an ambitious melange called “The Bi Bim Bop” ($10). Inspired by a popular Korean rice dish, the salad places classic Asian ingredients kimchi, sticky rice and a fried egg alongside more conventional ingredients like carrots and baby spinach. Things gets a bit questionable when the salad’s less-compatible elements start to mix. There was a moment of discomfort when the egg yolk began to ooze its bright yellow way onto the chopped beets, but dig in fearlessly and you will not be disappointed.

There remain kinks to be worked out at Culture Shock. Would-be diners are left to linger awkwardly by the door, wondering if a staff member will seat them, and similar confusion ensues at the meal’s end about whether or not patrons are expected to clear their own tables — it turns out they are.

The dining area is crowded with plenty of chairs, most of which were empty on the evening in question. But considering the number of Ithacans peering curiously in the window, the space will soon become crowded. With intriguingly-named salads like The Hot Vegan and The Frat Boy still left to experience, a return trip definitely seems in order.

Original Author: Eliza LaJoie