A New Dog’s Tricks

Mary Swortwood balances environmental responsibility and good taste at Green Dog Café.

Photograph by Bronze Photography

She insists she doesn’t want to shove it down your throat, but just in case the name hasn’t provided a clue, Mary Swortwood’s nearly five-month-old restaurant has a conscience. You may remember her other restaurants—Brown Dog Café in Blue Ash and Tinks in Clifton—both sold to other restaurateurs years ago (Shawn McCoy and Elliot Jablonsky, respectively). Named after her and partner Mark Swortwood’s dogs, they were primarily dinner-focused with a menu built on those globetrotting fusions that require raspberries from Argentina and seafood from over-fished waters. But it’s a new dawn, a new day. The greening of restaurants has gained momentum, and Green Dog Café is one of the first area restaurants to go beyond merely sourcing food locally to considering the environmental impact during construction and daily operations—hence the merging of old and new names.

According to the Green Restaurant Association, restaurants are the largest single energy consumers and waste producers in the retail industry, using more than 300,000 gallons of water and generating 50,000 pounds of waste per location annually. Many restaurateurs today are making eco-friendly choices that minimize the negative effects of waste and lessen their carbon footprint, with much of the environmental goodwill more noticeable in the menu’s locavore language than in other green practices behind the scenes, like: composting food scraps, and using Energy Star rated appliances, sustainable materials, renewable resources, and safer cleaning products. Fresh. Local. Sustainable. Hot trend? Maybe, but with the overall cost of running such a wasteful business, it’s a trend that makes sound business sense. “I don’t really care about what [customers] think,” Swortwood says about the perception that she’s merely capitalizing on a trend. “It’s the right thing to do.”

As in the original Brown Dog Café, Mark and Mary Swortwood (no longer married, they remain committed business partners) have built Green Dog Café in the newly constructed Columbia Square, the eight-acre, mixed-use development located in Columbia-Tusculum. Where Brown Dog was small and dim, the 3,200-square-foot Green Dog is awash in color—bright aquamarine and pumpkin walls—and features soaring unfinished ceilings with tracks of tiny retail-style lighting.

From the outside, with its facade of floor to ceiling windows, the colors draw the cavernous room forward and make it appear more intimate than it really is; at twilight this view casts a particularly seductive glow. Inside, the hard surfaces—concrete floor, metal chairs, and tabletops recycled from porcelain and glass—lend it the urban contemporary ambience of a supersized Chipotle. Or as my architect friend put it, “it feels empty even when it’s crowded.”

Part of that vibe is due to the cafeteria-style design. Not the Formica-laden sort manned by plump lunch ladies, but a wide gleaming counter bordering a stylish open kitchen filled with jacketed cooks producing a casual menu that’s more lifestyle-driven than chef-driven. Grab a single-page menu as you enter, order and pay for your food and drinks at the counter, and a food runner delivers it to the table.

The menu lists a hodgepodge of casual comfort food: breakfast items, appetizers, soups, salads, sandwiches, wraps, and four rice bowls created with healthy, organic ingredients sourced from local farmers and artisans that have adopted sustainable practices. Swortwood won’t serve beef (“The carbon footprint is too large,” she says), but she features humanely raised, locally pastured pork and poultry, and farm-raised salmon. Dairy products, unfiltered honey, fair trade coffee, maple syrup, and seasonal produce are prominent throughout the menu. There are gluten- and dairy-free choices, as well as dishes for vegetarians and vegans.

The message is clear: Green Dog is staking its name and very identity on the foundation of seasonal-local-sustainable. We can feel good about dining here. But like any operation, the restaurateur must strike a balance between ideology, value, and flavor. I found about half of the dishes I sampled over several visits to be more well-intentioned than memorable. A few were outstanding.

The bowls may be the specialty of the house, but the house made “cat-head” biscuits (so named because of their size) accompanied by the bacon and roasted tomato omelette are reason enough to drop by. That’s the intimacy the biscuits evoke—as if you just popped in to visit your grandmother and happened upon a plate of warm biscuits waiting to be slathered with plenty of butter and strawberry preserves. Swortwood’s are everything a true buttermilk biscuit should be, each bite a fusion of flaky, moist, crisp, and delicate—perhaps the best I’ve eaten (other than my grandmother’s, naturally). Chevre melts throughout the tomato and bacon omelette, arugula provides some radishy zip, and the combination makes getting up in the morning pleasurable.

Also not to be missed are the lemon zephyr pancakes. Impossibly light and tender, the pancakes are infused with lemon quark, a ricotta-like cheese from Blue Jacket Dairy. Swortwood scatters fresh berries on top and serves them with honey whipped butter and maple syrup. And do I even have to say it? They absolutely melt in your mouth. I’m a sausage fan, but not of the two tough, overcooked discs I was served with the pancakes. I don’t care how long the pigs were massaged at the Dean Family Farm in Georgetown, someone in the Green Dog kitchen did not do right by them.

Despite the fast-casual atmosphere, there are no plastic cups, straws, or cutlery. No bottled water. There are cocktails and a dozen or so decent, inexpensive cafe wines; it made me wonder how the carbon footprint of the Heartland Stickleback Red from South Australia measures up. But some things are worth going the distance for. Flatware is gathered in a caddy at the table, napkins are of the unbleached recycled variety (ironically, they dissolve and tear so easily we went through twice as many), and much of the food is presented in oversized bowls.

The execution swings dramatically from bowl to bowl. Lemony hummus is exemplary: smooth, fresh, and cool marrying well with the piquancy of roasted red peppers, the salt of feta, the warmth of barbari, a Persian flatbread. Chow Chow Curry, on the other hand—chicken, green curry, coconut milk, and cilantro served over brown rice—suffered from the sort of thick, pasty sauce that results when too much flour is added as a thickener. Not once, but twice. This from the kitchen of a career chef? Surprising.

The Chihuahua bowl fared little better, its layers of rice, black beans, corn salad, tomato salsa, and cheese more lackluster than anything, as if something was missing. But then a bowl of edamame simply stir fried with red pepper flakes, garlic, and sesame turned out to be sublime, leaving our lips slicked with oil and salt as we slipped the beans from their pods.

Swortwood says that Green Dog is experimental in some ways—as she figures out what matters to customers, and how she can further build a community around sustainable practices. Like most other chefs, she wants her food to appeal to contemporary tastes while staying firmly rooted in tradition, which means chasing maximum flavor by sourcing the best local products. It’s a benevolent goal, but a raison d’être that’s difficult to embrace without addressing the mercurial kitchen first.

Green Dog Café, 3543 Columbia Parkway, Columbia-Tusculum, (513) 321-8777.

Tues–Thurs 11 am–9 pm, Fri 11 am–10 pm, Sat 9 am–10 pm, Sun 9 am–3 pm (breakfast served weekends only).

Moderate. Starters, soups, salads, sandwiches, “bowls” and brunch items all $5–$17. The no tipping policy keeps it manageable.

Healthy food done fast-casual, cafeteria style in a bright urban industrial space.

Originally published in the December 2009 issue.

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