Going Moo

Apr 12, 2006 at 12:00 am

Moo Moo's Organic Bistro is two-thirds kitchen. The quaint Grosse Pointe Park restaurant sports a dining area that can accommodate, say, a dozen people. The front of the house is, in fact, utilitarian — a courtesy almost — for those who want to sit down to eat. There are a few high tops, antique tin ceilings, minimally decorated walls and a counter. It's a great spot — cozy, clean — but it's not the kind of place where you'd sit and kibitz. The real beauty of this particular beanery is what wafts from the oven, skillets and chopping boards.

In January of 2005, Michele Rastelli opened up Moo Moo's on the northeast block of Alter and Charlevoix, less than ten paces away from popular watering hole-cum-music venue, Ye Old Tap Room. Moo's has all the "salvaged building" cred of other on-the-cheap upstart joints — forgotten digs that are refurbished, painted in bright colors and made useful again.

"I just thought there was a need for a place like this," the 26-year-old says.

The restaurant recalls a 1940s café, with just enough flair to give the eatery ambience, but humble, as if to say, "We conserve." It's an impossibly sunny, 50-degree spring day, and the entire neighborhood has been power-washed by a recent rain. Both front and back doors are propped open to create a breezeway for the sun-warmed air to flow through the place. Mother Earth is working her magic; it's the perfect setting to eat from her harvest.

Today Rastelli and her 23-year-old sister, Marissa, stand on either side of a 6-foot island in the center of the kitchen. The younger Rastelli, who's also a partner in the biz, chops a seemingly endless supply of cucumbers while her sister prepares an impromptu lunch. They're putting together pre-packaged meals for distribution to several local retailers. So popular are the ready-made entrées, the pre-packaged business has become the lion's share of Moo Moo's business. The specialty this week is roasted sweet potato wild rice balls seasoned with rosemary and oregano. They are dappled with cranberries and topped with roasted walnuts — and they're almost too perfect to eat.

Moo Moo's specializes in raw, vegetarian and vegan-friendly fare, prepared by these two young women who adore food. They're not chefs. No, they're cooks with a symbiotic relationship with the food they like to eat the pleasure of its preparation and ingestion, its health and healing power. And though vegetarian restaurants aren't the novelty they once were, Moo Moo's take on the no-meat diet merits a second look.

The menu is filled with original creations. Meals are fashioned from a wisdom born of years of Michele's travels and kitchen trial-and-error — colorful, textured concoctions of an endless array of fruits and vegetables and unprocessed grains. And though the ingredients are limited to meatless products, there are no hedged bets here: The recipes are forward-thinking combos of flavor, the key to vegetarian cuisine. Such ingredients as Irish cheese and roasted red peppers are served with fresh nutmeg and Dijon mustard. Lasagna is made noodle-less and without dairy. Goat cheese is infused with lemongrass and lavender. Moo Moo's banana walnut pâté? It's divine with apple butter. You get the idea.

For the sake of this story, Michele puts together a light lunch. She makes it up as she goes.

She's prepared some polenta cakes with corn and black beans. While flip-flopping the speckled cakes from one hand to the other, she explains that most of her produce is grown locally. That way it's always fresh, often handpicked and, whenever possible, organic.

And if the beauty of the entrées weren't enough, the sisters are. Their skin is flawless, their hair thick and shiny. They have strong, manicured fingernails. A lifetime of eating Moo Moo's-style meals shows on their glowing complexions.

The kitchen's powerful aromas are pungent and exotic-smelling, but Michele says she's not partial to any one ethnic style of food prep. "I guess I'd just call this California cooking," she says. "But it's really just about using fresh seasonal ingredients in a colorful and flavorful way."

"If there's one piece of advice I could give to people who want to learn about cooking, it would be to not be afraid to combine different flavors," she continues. "You can rely on the food to give you the flavors."

Culinary experts often say that the first step in food consumption is made with the eyes. And if presentation is key, then the Rastellis' dishes are ambrosia.

Soon Michele zests a lime on top of the polenta lunch she has just prepared.

"I hope it's good," she says.

And it is. One bite of the entrée and the mouth bursts with flavor. There's sweetness from a chutney, bite from chipotle, meaty texture from the polenta and crunchiness from cucumber and leeks.

"In a lot of ways, it feels more like art than cooking," Michele says.


Moo Moo's Organic Bistro is located at 14929 Charlevoix, Grosse Pointe Park; 313-331-6667; moomoosbistro.com.


Moo Moo's pomegranate chipotle chutney over Southwest polenta cakes with cucumber leek crunch:

Southwest Polenta Cakes

1 cup polenta
3 cups water
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon chili powder
2 cups black beans
1 cup corn
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
1 1/2 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro

Bring polenta, water, sea salt, cumin and chili powder to boil, simmer on low for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add black beans and corn, simmer for 5 minutes. Stir in fresh mint and cilantro, remove from heat, set for 10 min.

Make patties out of 1/2 cup of mixture and sauté on medium heat in olive oil for 3 minutes (each side).

Pomegranate Chipotle Chutney

1 papaya, peeled and chopped
1 mango chopped
5 strawberries chopped
1 banana sliced
2-3 teaspoon ground chipotle (depending on desired spiciness)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup pomegranate juice
1 tablespoon olive oil

Combine ingredients in mixing bowl, toss, and sauté in olive oil over medium heat. Sauté uncovered for 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cover pan and continue to cook over low heat for 10 minutes, stirring twice. Remove from heat and keep covered.

Cucumber Leek Crunch

1 English cucumber peeled and sliced into quarters<> 1 leek chopped<> 1 avocado pitted, peeled and chopped
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
1 tablespoon chopped mint
2 dashes of sea salt
1 teaspoon lime zest and juice of 1/2 of a lime

Toss ingredients & chill until use.

Lay two polenta cakes over mixed greens. Top with warm chutney and scoop of cucumber crunch. Enjoy with fresh mint iced green tea or a chilled mojito.

Eve Doster is the listings editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]