At a glance: These aren't exactly salad days in Washington. The city is in the midst of a love affair with bacon and burgers, so when the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals placed Washington at the top of its annual list of vegetarian-friendly cities, it was a bit of a head-scratcher.
Only a handful of eateries have catered to the meatless set, and two of them, Vegetate in Washington and Udupi Palace in Takoma Park, shuttered in the past year. Here to fill some of the gap is Cafe Green, which arrived on 17th Street NW's restaurant row in May with an all-vegan, mostly organic menu.
Its sister restaurant -- the Korean-themed vegetarian cafe Java Green on 19th Street NW -- is a popular lunch and carryout destination, but Cafe Green sets its sights higher with table service and entrees that boast a broader pedigree: Dishes range from macaroni and cheese with greens to gnocchi to kimchi soup.
Credit the diversity of the restaurant's management: D.J. Kim, who is also one of the partners in Java Green, general manager Jimmy Cooney, once one of the employee-owners at the University of Maryland's vegan-friendly Food Co-Op, and chef David Duffy, formerly of Great Sage in Clarksville.
"We don't get the nutrients we need because we're eating processed foods, not fresh fruits and vegetables," says Kim, 38, who has become the restaurant's missionary for healthful eating.
At Cafe Green, diners can choose from three seating areas: Outside is a perfect-for-people-watching patio; inside on the first level, the restaurant, painted a cheery Kermit green, is filled with cushy mod seating perfect for a lunch date; glossy wooden tables and dim lighting provide a subdued dinner atmosphere upstairs.
On the menu: At Cafe Green, the biggest issue is deciding from a menu brimming with options, including several for raw-food adherents and those with food allergies. It's the raw dishes -- veggie-and-nut laden recipes that don't require cooking so as to leave nutrients intact -- that pack a scrumptious punch. On my dinner visit, the yummy raw California pizza, with a crust of flax and sunflower seeds and coconut flour, was topped with guacamole, veggies and cashew-based faux cheese. It did taste like pizza -- albeit cold pizza -- thanks to its perfectly seasoned tomato base. At brunch, the raw "pancakes," tasty, pulpy rounds made with banana, flax seed and coconut flour, arrived under a generous helping of ripe, flavorful strawberries and blueberries and was drizzled with mildly sweet agave syrup flecked with date. My friend and I greedily cleared the plate.
While healthy eating is emphasized at Cafe Green, the portions won't leave anyone wanting. The mac and cheese (gluten-free rotini, vegan cheese sauce) came on a platter loaded with candied yams and seasoned kale, enough for a meal and leftovers.
At your service: The restaurant seems stuck in a curious limbo between the counter-service atmosphere of Java Green and the fine-dining experience it wants to offer. Tweaks to the service would do a world of good. During my visits, appetizers arrived at the same time as entrees, leaving tables overfull with food. And table service doesn't necessarily mean privacy; during my visit for Sunday brunch, Kim stopped by, unsolicited, to encourage us to attend an upcoming yoga retreat, almost as if we had been waiting at his lunch counter.
What to avoid: As with Java Green, the menu at Cafe Green has crave-worthy high points, and a few disheartening low points, including chili cheese fries whose limp spuds drown in the saucy toppings. The fake meats in the Irish Breakfast served at brunch were dry and overly salty. A rule of thumb at Cafe Green: Stick to fresh veggies and salads or dishes that don't employ the fake stuff.
Wet your whistle: The restaurant doesn't serve alcohol, although the owners say cocktails and beer and wine are on the way. In the meantime, you hardly miss it. The ginger tea comes three ways; the spicy incarnation, served piping hot and bearing a potent kick thanks to cayenne pepper, was soul-warming. Avoid sticker shock and steer clear of the raw coconut water, smoothies and shakes, which cost nearly as much as the entrees.
Bottom line: Cafe Green's take on vegan food is novel: Attract crowds not with faux meat and fried starches, but with unfussy meals full of fresh, natural ingredients. Diners with allergies to nuts or gluten, or those who want to eat better, have found a haven at Cafe Green.
By Lavanya Ramanathan, July 2010