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Big Fresh Cafe: The name says it all

Low-carb, no-carb, low-fat, no-fat, high-fat, high-protein, high-fiber -- Karen Masterson has seen countless trendy diet regimens cycle through popular culture, fall out of favor, then cycle through again. The pattern drives her absolutely batty. "I just refuse to enter into that," she says. "I believe so strongly that if you eat whole foods, good grains, lots of fresh vegetables and fruits, and good sources of protein," good health will follow. Amen to that. In a society in which many people know the net carbohydrate content of assorted foods but few know exactly what a carbohydrate is, Masterson is a voice of reason. She sums up her food philosophy in four words: "Eat well, live well." And that's the mantra at Big Fresh Cafe, the good-for-you, environmentally conscious restaurant that Masterson and her husband, Kevin, who owns the Tennessee's barbeque chain, opened last fall.

The small, focused menu at Big Fresh offers a few Middle Eastern foods -- hummus, falafel, tabbouleh -- held over from the restaurant it replaced, Rami's. But its primary focus is on whole grains (brown rice, whole-wheat couscous, wheat noodles), lean proteins (tofu, all-natural chicken, and wild Alaskan salmon), and fresh produce from local farms.

Most of the vegetables come from local growers and organic suppliers whose names will be familiar to anyone who shops at farmers' markets or pick-your-own establishments: Heirloom Harvest in Westborough, Marino Lookout Farm in South Natick, and 21st Century Foods in Jamaica Plain. Sunshine Dairy in Framingham and Land's Sake in Weston may soon join that list. That means Big Fresh's customers get fruits and veggies of top-shelf freshness, including some plucked that very morning.

Many menu items are organic, which means they're produced without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, growth hormones, irradiation, or genetic engineering. The chicken, from Bell & Evans, is raised without antibiotics or growth hormones. The salmon comes from a regulated fishery. No Coke or Pepsi here; the microbrewed soda is from a JP company. And because Masterson -- who has a "passion for causes," as her husband puts it, especially social justice issues -- wants healthful eating to be affordable for the masses and not just an expensive option for affluent consumers, she has labored mightily to keep prices reasonable; the costliest menu item is $8.25.

The commitment to environmentalism and local businesses isn't limited to food. Walls double as rotating gallery space for area artists; coffee mugs are recycled glass; T-shirts are organic cotton; stained-glass light fixtures come from a Natick artisans' shop; take-out containers (imprinted with Virginia Woolf's famous saying: "One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well") are paperboard rather than styrofoam or plastic. A jumble of feel-good words is printed on the menu: family, community, love, kindness, compassion, music, friends, laughter, art, exercise. Bulletin boards tout community events and groups.

If all this seems a bit touchy-feely, it is. The 28-seat restaurant has such a crunchy aura that I nearly expected customers and staff to join hands and sing "Kumbaya" together. If you're cynically inclined, all this warmth and fuzziness may be a bit much. Still, I couldn't help but like the tenor of the place. And I love Big Fresh's food.

The salads, made with generous portions of verdant greens, are gorgeous; and most dressings are homemade (balsamic, ginger-miso, tofu, and raspberry vinaigrette , but not Caesar). My favorites are sweet roasted beets and feta ($6.25) and the Big Baby ($7.49), a trio of pears, walnuts, and gorgonzola. The Big Fresh ($4.99) sounds promising -- cucumbers, mushrooms, carrots, cabbage, and sunflower seeds -- but the weak tofu dressing doesn't cut it. The ginger-miso dressing is fantastic, though, enlivening Oriental chicken salad ($7.50, or $5.49 meatless) with a spicy zing.

Moroccan tangine ($7.95) is a knockout. It's a lovely mishmash of sauteed bell peppers, carrots, zucchini, summer squash, red onions, and raisins over whole wheat couscous, all topped with marinara sauce blended with pureed sweet potatoes, an ingenious combination. Turmeric, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, and cayenne jazz things up. You can add tofu (it's very firm and sliced into thick blocks), chicken (it's baked with rosemary and pepper), or salmon (it's also baked, and on one visit was overly fishy but on another perfectly prepared).

Thai curry ($8.25) is made with broccoli, jasmine rice, and your choice of protein -- all in a thin, mild curry sauce of coconut milk, cilantro, garlic, and peanut butter. Redolent of coconut and peanuts, it's delicious. Teriyaki stir-fry ($5.95, $7.95 with protein) -- a bestseller -- is made with brothy homemade teriyaki sauce (soy sauce, sugar, ginger, sake) splashed over beautiful veggies then paired with wheat noodles or brown rice. The chicken meatball wraps ($4.99, $5.99) are great, too; they're seasoned with basil and oregano, and are quite moist.

Tofu takes center stage in the Big Fresh Special ($6.95), which also comes with brown rice, teriyaki vegetables, deliciously peanutty satay sauce, and vegetarian collard greens spiked with crushed red pepper. The collard, thanks to honey and rice wine vinegar, has no unpleasant bitterness (even if eating it, despite its nutritional-superstar status, always seems to me like taking one's medicine). Piccalilli, a bright-yellow mixture of pickled and curried cabbage, carrots, celery, and cauliflower, is mouth-puckeringly sour -- too much so for my taste buds.

Except for the standout hummus -- which is very thick, tastes strongly of tahini, and isn't overly lemony like most storebought kinds -- the Middle Eastern foods are run-of-the-mill. On one visit, falafel was bland and leaden, but on another it was freshly fried and much-improved, arriving hot, crisp, and with distinct chickpea flavor.

Masterson is still struggling to offer affordable homemade organic desserts. She experimented with date bars, but they're not yet cost-effective. She's now trying out homemade carrot cake. You can also choose from cinnamon-sugar pita chips or tiny organic chocolates. Scarf down a few of the latter, which are just 30 cents apiece, and your sweet tooth should be nicely sated.

All Cheap Eats reviews may be retrieved from at Sato II 147 Main St., Stoneham, 781-438-8786. Light and mild takes on both Chinese and Japanese classics share the menu here with chef Fei Chen's East-West and Chinese-Japanese fusion dishes. They also serve a range of salads and boast a sushi bar that's a cut above most neighborhood sushi joints. (6/17/04, D.T.)

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