By Ryan Sharpstene
If in the past month you’ve found yourself stopping for a minute staring inside the large front windows of South Cayuga Street’s newest eatery, Culture Shock, you’re not alone.
It’s hard not to stop on the busy side street to the Commons when you notice the new neon-green painted walls, disco ball, abstract art deco paintings and ball pit inside the spacious eatery. Yes, I said it—ball pit, with those multicolor plastic balls from your childhood that your mother yelled at you for throwing at the other kids.
Once inside, as you sneak to the back of the restaurant and pass the bar and small stage for live performances, you will find the kitchen and order station, where large chalkboards list the menu.
The menu is simple in terms of variety but bountiful in ingredients.
Culture Shock is primarily a salad and frozen yogurt joint. Offering almost a dozen varieties of salads—from a Mucho Queso Lindo (romaine, black beans, carrots, onions and avocado topped with tomato salsa and raw milk cheddar) to the Bi Bim Bop (spinach, carrots, sprouts, beets and onions topped with a sesame orange dressing, sushi rice, kimchi and a fried egg)—there is something for everyone. Customers also have the option to build their own salad, order a cup of the daily soup or enjoy one of the frozen, fruity treats. Customers can enjoy cups of tart and fruit-flavored frozen yogurt, vegan soft serve and smoothies all made from an array of fresh fruits and other ingredients. Snacks, including macaroons, rice, fried eggs, kimchi, granola and raw cheesecake, are relatively cheap options on the menu. Hot tea and kombucha, fermented tea, are also available.
The inspiration behind the 100 percent gluten-free menu lies in the personal history of the owner, Marian Flaxman. Flaxman, who was diagnosed with celiac disease, is unable to digest gluten, a wheat protein. Additionally, Flaxman derived the name of the restaurant from the fact that most of the foods feature a fermented ingredient containing live cultures that aide the digestive process.
On a cold March Sunday afternoon, a friend and I decided to sample the Curry Crunchy salad, original frozen yogurt and Berry Bliss Kombucha.
The Curry Crunchy salad, $7.50, was more than enough for two and featured a bed of green romaine lettuce, diced red pepper and julienned carrots. All the vegetables were fresh, each bright with their natural colors and crisp to the bite. Sizeable pineapple chunks, raisins and curry cashews added a nice, sweet touch to the natural, dry taste of the raw vegetables. A dressing of homemade curry yogurt and curry kraut added nice deviation from conventional salad dressings. The deep-yellow/brown South Asian spice dressing was more than enjoyable, giving the already colorful salad a new salty dimension.
At first, the $4 small, original flavor frozen yogurt we ordered could have easily been mistaken for the pomegranate flavor, due to its unnaturally bright pink color. This tart treat could serve two or satisfy the big sweet tooth of one. Made from local grass-fed organic milk, yogurt and organic evaporated cane juice, according to the menu, this was an absolutely phenomenal treat. Sweet, rich and without that sometimes found grittiness or thin flavor, this was hands down some of the best “froyo” I’ve tasted. And believe me—I spent a semester criss-crossing the streets of New York between the froyo shops Pinkberry and Red Mango. Customers are welcome to add a variety of toppings, ranging from traditional granola, banana chips and coconut to chocolate chips, pumpkin seeds and more.
Our glass of Berry Bliss Kombucha, $2, was rather bitter and flavorless. Maybe it’s because we aren’t tea fans, but neither of us enjoyed the glass of fermented purple brew. It tasted like seltzer water with a splash of sugar-free juice, and it was best for occasional sipping. I do admit this was my first encounter with kombucha, and it certainly will be my last. I also do not want to blame Culture Shock, as I am sure tea connoisseurs may find the beverage suitable for at least a large gulp.
While we had to dash back to campus on this particular Sunday, it was hard not to stop and enjoy the hangout nature of the restaurant. Aside from the cozy seating—tables, sofa chairs, couches and bar stools—bookshelves filled with magazines and board games break the black chalkboard walls that line more than half the interior. Groups of young adults, teenagers and children relaxed inside the restaurant almost as if it were a living room or basement play room—that is, if your family typically plays soft folk indie music in the background.
Culture Shock is truly an Ithaca novelty. While not necessarily full after the $14.50 meal, the dishes were each fresh, colorful and enjoyable. If you are looking for a place to sink your teeth into a full meal, look elsewhere. If you are in the mood to kick back and snack on a light lunch and jump up and down in a ball pit on a quiet afternoon or weekend, Culture Shock is up your alley. The Cayuga Street eatery is open Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and stays open to 1:30 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Take out is available.
And yes, we couldn’t resist snapping at least one Facebook picture in the ball pit.
Culture Shock is located at 109 S. Cayuga St.
Ryan Sharpstene is a sophomore journalism major who likes strawberries and granola on his froyo. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.