Monday, February 5, 2007

Elf Cafe

Saturday night continued Edan's Birthday 2007 (It's a week-long festival and a state of mind) with dinner with a couple friends, Stephanie and Charlie, one of whom happens to be vegan. They wanted to try Elf Cafe, a new vegetarian restaurant in Echo Park. I don't tend to eat vegetarian (and I doubt I've eaten a single vegan meal in my life), but I was curious to see what they had on the menu. Online research proved difficult, as Elf Cafe has no website. While that's a little odd in this day and age, it's not altogether unheard of. What's a little more annoying is that they have no phone. And no sign, either. Really, Elf Cafe, get over yourself.

It's a tiny place next to a now-defunct movie theater. They have one or two tables outside, but since it's on Sunset Blvd, would you really want to sit out there? (Actually, you might. I'll explain in a bit). Inside, there's a fair amount of exposed brick and a distressed, Spanish-style tile floor. Some very chic lamps hang from the ceiling, giving the place a dim, warm feeling. A large mirror hangs on one wall, adding the illusion of space, very important to a little sliver of a restaurant like Elf Cafe. They had hung a few Pier 1 Imports-style bamboo dishes and faux-Thai wall hangings that seemed like they were bought at auction from a failed Asian restaurant, both of which seemed out of place. A counter with seating for four or five flanks an open kitchen. While I've always liked the idea of an open kitchen -- something about transparency, I suppose -- there were some unwanted side effects from this one. The space is so small and the ventilation so poor that by the end of our meal, we were all sweating like offensive linemen, and Edan was cursing her cashmere sweater. In total, though, it is a very cute place. Small and welcoming, if way, way too hot (God help them come summer).

The menu was entirely organic and vegetarian, and mostly vegan (the exceptions being the dishes that had cheese in them). Each table gets an amuse bouche of potato-garlic puree with crostini, a nice touch for a smaller restaurant. In France, the tiny neighborhood restaurants we went to always had a small taste of something to get you started. More American restaurants should consider this. The puree itself was only okay, and it was a group serving, rather than individual ones, making this more like chips and salsa at a Mexican place, but it's still a nice gesture. It's BYOB, and none us bought any B, so we had to stick with the beverages offered on the menu. I got a limeade that was very nice. Edan got a mint iced tea. Now, when I think of iced tea, I think of black tea. If you add mint to it, it becomes mint iced tea. What they call mint iced tea is ice water with mint leaves in it. This is not "tea;" it isn't steeped. This is mint water. Not the same thing. Edan sent it back and got a limeade. Charlie got a vegan "kola" that was sweetened with an exotic ingredient called honey, instead of high-fructose corn syrup. He said it tasted like soda used to taste. There's a website for it somewhere, but I can't remember the brand name. Maybe an industrious Apronite could find it?

For starters, I got a crock of lentils with roasted mushrooms and caramelized onions. It was like a thick, tasty lentil stew. Served piping hot, in a slightly larger serving size this dish could've been a main course. Others at the table got a tomato puree soup that I thought was tasty, but a little like tomato sauce (probably because there was no cream in it), and an incredibly good vegan potato salad made with Dijon mustard and perched atop haricot verte.

For a main course, I got their Mac and Cheese, which was actually penne and cheese. This is no small matter, since the penne in my dish didn't hold the cheese sauce very well. What resulted was dry penne on top, and a rich cheese sauce sitting on the bottom of the dish. The flavor was good -- they use a blue cheese (we couldn't get our server to specify which blue it was) and Parmesan. As one of us pointed out, it was more of a penne dish, and less of a loaf or casserole, which is more what I think of when I think mac and cheese.

Stephanie ordered the potato and blue cheese tart, while Edan ordered the tomato and feta tart, both served on a bed of mixed greens, and Charlie got the grilled beets and fennel. I thought the beets and fennel were excellent, grilled whole and simply presented on the plate. Very flavorful. Edan said her tomato and feta tart was more pastry puff than tart, and while she liked the flaky crust, the best part of the dish was the greens, which were very fresh.

We ordered the entire dessert menu. OK, it was only two dishes, but it sounds more decadent when you say "I had the entire menu." There was a saffron pudding and a pear tarte tartin. The saffron pudding (which was not vegan; I guess they haven't figured out how to make a decent vegan pudding) was tasty, but quite soupy. I can get kind of skeeved out by odd textures, so I would've preferred a firmer pudding. It came topped with pistachio pieces and raisins. The tarte tartin was vegan, and I thought it was delicious (Edan didn't like the tart, thinking it tasted too "vegan"). It had a honey flavor, and a chewy crust that was more like the inside of baklava than a typical tart crust (which got me thinking...what do they substitute for the butter in a vegan tart crust? I looked online, and the Whole Foods recipe substitutes margarine, which is actually really bad for you. So, here's an instance where being vegan may have an adverse effect on one's health. Of course, if you're eating a tart, you're probably not too concerned about health anyway, right?).

In total, for four of us, with no corkage fee, our tab came to a little over a hundred dollars, which isn't cheap. As a birthday present to Edan, Stephanie and Charlie paid (Thanks, guys!). I felt like the mac and cheese could've been better, and they should regulate the temperature a little more, but it was still a great meal. The ambiance was cozy (and scorching hot). It wasn't too loud, and our service was prompt and attentive. I will definitely go back, but I might think about sitting outside, Sunset Blvd traffic noise be damned.


Anonymous said...

I didn't know what kind of food would be offered at a vegan restaurant. It sounds interesting. I would try it. Great descriptions!

Anonymous said...

a note on margarine... there are vegan butter substitutes that constitute as margarine, which is just a blend of oils. your typical run of the mill margarine is often made with hydrogenated oil and who knows what, but stuff like Soy Garden is non-hydro. and not so bad (usually soy, olive, and canola oil blend.) anyway, just thought i'd leave ya this tidbit.

Patrick Brown said...

Good to know re: margarine. I guess I've always had this instant, knee jerk aversion to margarine. I blame Anthony Bourdain.

Erin S. said...

Hey--just found your blog--am planning to visit this restaurant Thursday night with some veggie friends....i'll be sure to dress in layers :)