Flyers advertising a yoga course hang near the front register. Peace signs, Grateful Dead posters and John Lennon quotes decorate the walls. But don't let the astrology-themed table tops or prayer flags fool you, it isn't all hippie-themed spa cuisine at Cafe Aquarius, though the friendly atmosphere has a '60s vibe.
The food at the Chalmette cafe and bakery has a wholesome feel and everything tastes fresh, from gingery quinoa tossed with Asian stir-fried vegetables to bow-tie pasta salad with velvety sauteed mushrooms showered with feta, parsley and a touch of lemon. All the breads are baked in house, including thick and chewy caramelized onion focaccia. That bread makes a great grilled cheese sandwich that appears as a recurring special — in which pungent, chunky pesto joins thick slices of melted Brie and Swiss cheeses.
The vegan Buffalo "chicken" wrap swaps in smoky, crusty cauliflower florets for poultry and adds creamy cashew blue "cheese." It also includes shredded purple cabbage and a creamy medley of ranch and spicy Buffalo sauce so the finished product is a mix of heat, crunch and smoke with a decadent creamy kick. Usually, I'm not one for meat substitutions, but I'd trade a steak sandwich for that wrap any day of the week.
Though the restaurant's simple lineup of soups, sandwiches and salads comes off as humble cafe fare, the portion sizes are anything but. On one visit, half of a small chicken covered an overflowing salad of mixed greens, strawberries, wisps of goat cheese and candied walnuts. The Croque St. Bernard is a marvelous meaty sandwich that arrives piled high with gravy-soaked roast beef debris. It requires a fork, since it oozes a creamy amalgamation of melted smoked Gouda cheese, chive aioli and thick bechamel. Diners can chose their bread for just about any sandwich here, and ciabatta is recommended for this one. It's a good choice, but the bread gets soft and heavy with the juices, to the point it's reminiscent of the crusty, bouillon-soaked French bread crouton topping French onion soup.
Also filling is the shrimp salad croissant, combining mayonnaise-draped Gulf shrimp flecked with parsley and hard-boiled egg on the buttery pastry. It's dressed with Roma tomatoes and mixed greens, which add texture that livens up the sandwich, but it too is difficult to eat without making a mess.
A glass case displays a range of sweet confections, including decadent turtle cake layered with caramel, drizzled with chocolate and topped with crumbled pecans. Traditional wedding cakes feature a light and spongy base with a creamy almond filling, and coconut cream tarts are like miniature cream pies, piled high with whipped cream and toasted coconut flakes.
The cakes are a reminder of the cafe's sweet origins — the owners run the long-standing cake shop Flour Power Confectionery — and it's as good a reason as any to pop in and savor some of the simple and sweet things in life.