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Labor of Love 

More grass roots than cutting edge, AQUARIAN'S MARKETPLACE provides a healthful slice of atmosphere in Faubourg Marigny.

In the East Village of Manhattan, located within sprinting distance of the city's best hot dogs, there's a vegan restaurant that purrs with the meditative swishes of cucumbers juicing, spinach dumplings steaming and seitan sizzling. Here assemble diners wearing skin-caressing yoga gear, diners in New York's black leather uniform, diners that resemble the husky taxi driver who brought you -- because the food is superb, the clientele here adheres to, and transcends, all vegan restaurant stereotypes. Within a 10-block radius, there's another vegan restaurant specializing in deep-fried foods, a narrow Indian place whose owner is the Soup Nazi of the vegetarian world, and a dusty Italian cafe where you can chase double espressos with fresh-pressed carrot juice.

You don't have to be vegetarian, or even particularly health-conscious, to enjoy such restaurants. In fact, I often pity non-carnivores while simultaneously coveting their lifestyle -- preferring soups enriched with ground cashews instead of cream, worshipping steroid-free soy's ability to out-flavor chicken in many preparations. In order to enjoy such a range of vegetarian and otherwise healthy restaurants you do, however sadly, have to travel well beyond New Orleans' city limits. You might have to exit the South altogether.

In the meantime, a few local places do offer alternatives to roast beef po-boys and Barq's -- Old Dog New Trick, the Apple Seed Shoppe, Surrey's juice bar. As of very recently, New Orleanians can also eat healthily at Aquarian's, a sweet corner cafe whose owners gathered the remaining pieces from Uptown's shuttered All Natural Foods and moved them to the brink of Faubourg Marigny. Outside the entrance, beside a sod-like flat of wheatgrass, All Natural's old sandwich board advertises shots of verdant, health-packed wheatgrass juice. Inside, flanked by cafe tables on one side and a bulk spice and herb selection on the other, health-minded grocery products inhabit several rows of familiar wooden shelves. There's even a resurrection of All Natural's once-beloved TLT sandwich (tomato, lettuce and tempeh bacon, with cheese if you dare). Here, where all sandwiches adopt the name of a Zodiac sign, it's called Cancer.

Danny and Crystal Stansbury formerly ran a full-service restaurant, also called Aquarian's, located above the spot where the bar Mimi's in the Marigny recently set up shop. This new daytime business seems to suit their expanded family: their daughter, Ocean, is less than a year old and already a major presence in the cafe. Crystal, who calls everyone "bebe" in a rapid, Elvis-like staccato, balances Ocean on one hip as she blends fruits, carrot juice, soy milk and protein powder into frothy, honey-sweetened Hercules smoothies. Danny reaches down to tousle Ocean's thickening hair en route to the market's impressive citrus display. In December he garnished each sandwich with half a candy-sweet satsuma.

Nibbling on power bars and nuzzling their infant, the Stansburys form the picture of health and domestic bliss, at least until the chicken salad runs out -- and the tuna salad, and the egg salad, and the hummus with Bible Bread. This seems to occur by noon, daily. Between several visits I managed to taste why. The chicken and tuna salads are both excellent, consisting of moist, white meat and grated carrot dressed lightly with mayonnaise; fresh rosemary flatters the chicken, while hard-cooked egg white bulks up the tuna salad. If they ask your preference, order all sandwiches on toasted, grainy bread and with leaf lettuce rather than alfalfa sprouts, which tend to feel furry.

Cream cheese herbed with dill bolsters the simple cucumber-tomato-avocado Sagittarius sandwich; it also provides a solid base for rosy, smooth smoked salmon piled on bagels with cucumber and tomato. Unfortunately the bagels, like so many cafe breads and pastries the world over, retain the flavor of the plastic in which they were wrapped.

For the most part, though, the food at Aquarian's is fresh; the cafe itself, more grass roots than cutting edge, is clearly a labor of love. The Artist's Salad, a frequent October lunch special, contained leaf lettuce, bell peppers, cucumbers and satsuma sections tossed in a well-balanced raspberry vinaigrette. Anybody could throw a similar salad together following a quick trip to the supermarket, but in this environment -- and with a cup of lemony, ginger-stung Zodiac juice -- it made a perfect light lunch. A creamy, non-dairy potato soup that's often available is equally satisfying, full-bodied but not bulky.

While this is a fine place to eat, and perhaps to fulfill a New Year's resolution or two, Aquarian's Marketplace's greatest strength is that it's a pleasant place to be, even when the food runs out. You might order a milk-free chai tea, flavored like a cinnamon stick, or a vegan cinnamon roll, which is delicious if you can forget the ecstasy of butter. Seated at an iron table outside, you watch as days evolve on the quieter end of the Faubourg Marigny: three little girls choreograph a dance routine in the bed of a pick-up truck, a man runs by with his dog, no one enters or exits Bornside Yarns across the street. Inside their cafe of exposed brick and teas for every state of mind, the Stansburys throw open the windows and rock out to Andre 3000.

click to enlarge Crystal and Danny Stansbury's daughter, - Ocean, is a major presence in the family- - run Aquarian's Marketplace. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Crystal and Danny Stansbury's daughter, Ocean, is a major presence in the family- run Aquarian's Marketplace.


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