Story and photos by Valentina Silva
It’s not that I’m anti fake meat. I actually enjoy a good “chicken” mole or “B”LT once in awhile, and places like Flore and Cinnamon do the veg-meat thing really well. However, there’s a special place in my heart for Echo Park’s Elf Café, where whole foods are the focus of their all-vegetarian cuisine, and there’s no tofu, tempeh, or wheat meat to be seen … or tasted.
With a creative and drop-dead delicious menu, this tiny restaurant with no sign to speak of has become a mainstay on Sunset Boulevard since opening in 2006, and even carnivores like me lust after their eastern Mediterranean fare. There’s nothing I love more than introducing “I-have-to-eat-meat-every-meal” friends to this place and watching their looks of skepticism (read: complete and total resistance) turn into utter satisfaction.
The starters at Elf are very tempting, and I love going with a group in order to justify getting at least two. One must is the Labneh (pictured below). The light, fluffy texture and tang of the goat yogurt cheese is the perfect match for the richness of the date and kalamata tapenade that sits atop it. Spread on the whole wheat pita with a bit of roasted garlic to punctuate it, this is exactly what I look for in an appetizer.
The Roasted Flatbread Shawarma (pictured at top), served open-faced and piled high, is also a good choice. The pita is firm enough to cut with a knife, but still soft and chewy. The hummus is spicy, though not oppressively so, with a thicker consistency than you’d expect. Oyster mushrooms and red cabbage salad top it off, making this a substantial dish — so much so that it can work as an entreé if you’re so inclined.
I tend to jump around when it comes to the entrées at Elf. On my most recent visit, I had the Braised Portobello Mushroom, stuffed with risotticelli, which the waitress informed me is a word invented by Elf head chef Scott Zwiezen to describe his savory mix of smokey mozzarella, grains and seasonal vegetables. As if that weren’t enough, there’s also garlic mashed potatoes and a toasty cheese crisps involved.
My dining companions chose the Spanikopita, which is served like a casserole rather than the usual square, and the decadent Savory Crepe and Chevre Butter. The two cheese-centric dishes are indicative of the dairy emphasis at Elf, but there are a few options that don’t fit the mold, including the Moroccan Vegetable Tagine, a hearty stew served over a red quinoa with a side of harissa. There are also some pretty serious salads to choose from.
Every dish at Elf possesses multi-faceted flavor—savory, sweet, spicy always seem to make appearances along with richness and lightness that strike a delectable balance. Who needs meat or even a reasonable facsimile when you’ve got all that?
Valentina Silva is a regular contributor writing about food and restaurants. You can also find Valentina’s reviews and stories on her new blog, Eastside Food Bites.