Where the diners come for raw treatment
Elizabeth serves vegan dinners weekly
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, May 22, 2011
The first course to hit the table tonight is a white wrap assembled from coconut meat and fresh cilantro, a pretty triangle stuffed with crumbled cauliflower tinted yellow with cumin and turmeric. The samosa arrives with a swab of green curry that ignites the eating and a salad of julienned cucumber to keep things cool.
The arrangement would look at home in an upscale Asian restaurant. Instead, it's presented on the second floor of a stately townhouse whose mistress of ceremonies is known for leaving a few things out of her recipes.
As in meat. And dairy. Gluten is absent from the meal, as are processed sugar and caffeine. While patrons can drink (organic) wines with dinner, alcohol plays no role in the cooking. Did I mention that everything is vegan, and nothing is heated beyond 115 degrees?
Elizabeth's Gone Raw, a once-a-week restaurant whipped up by the Catering Company of Washington last July, is the dream of every vegan who ever wished she could dine as stylishly as her meat-inclined brethren and of every conscientious eater trying to do right by his body. The event, which is sometimes accompanied by a speaker or live music, is named for company owner Elizabeth Petty, whose personal diet changed radically when she received a breast cancer diagnosis two years ago. The rationale behind not exposing raw food to high temperatures, says Petty, is that the food will retain enzymes that help digestion and the absorption of nutrients.
An evening at Elizabeth's Gone Raw begins in a chandelier-lit foyer that suggests a Georgetown socialite is expecting you. A grandfather clock and a portrait of a woman who could pass for Marie Antoinette fuel the impression. Upstairs, in a long dining room with space for 80 mindful eaters, mint-green walls, stained-glass panels, antique tapestries and tables topped with fetching bouquets further the feeling.
No one bothered to go over the five-course tasting menu on my recent visits. Your mere presence seems to indicate to the staff that you've done some research before making a reservation and know what to expect. Helpfully, however, a cheat sheet accompanies the list of dishes. Thus, we learn that a first course of flatbread is rolled out from hemp, flax and walnuts, and that a main course resembling lasagna is actually sheets of thinly sliced zucchini layered with a "ricotta" whipped up from lemon juice, macadamia nuts and celery.
As friends and I peruse the menu, I catch raised eyebrows across the table. Seventy-five dollars a head for a dinner that doesn't turn on an oven? the expressions seemed to suggest. Are we going to be hungry after this?
"Cocktails?" is not a question my fellow carnivores anticipated at such a health-focused destination, but if you're so inclined, you can have something strong to start. (By the time you read this, Elizabeth's Gone Raw might be making drinks with organic spirits.) There's no bread course, but in its place is a snack that makes you forget bread's absence: kale chips sparked with jalapeo, cayenne and lemon juice and held together with cashew paste. (To achieve a fried or baked texture, the kitchen dehydrates many of its ingredients, including the chips.)
Any lingering doubts are erased by that nubby flatbread, topped with an olive tapenade and lemony shaved fennel, which is followed by a salad of baby arugula presented in a boat-shaped bowl with a pale yellow truffle vinaigrette on the side. A third course, that zucchini arrangement, tastes richly of cheese and long-cooked tomatoes, although neither is present. (The tomatoes are intense because they're sun-dried.)
The showstopper, however, is dessert. Chocolate mocha mousse cake is a fetching little tower crafted from cacao, dates, coconut and more, ringed with a creamy-tasting sauce of espresso - decaf and cold-press, naturally.
The only preachy moment this first night in spring is an unintroduced gospel group whose presence seems forced rather than natural.
Another weekend, I find more evidence that raw can be rewarding. The coconut wrap mentioned above is trailed by a salad that announces spring in each bite of peas, tendrils and mint in the mix. On the plate is a sauce made haunting with smoky Chinese tea; its creamy texture comes courtesy of pureed celery and cashews. This is food with abundant complexity and unexpected appeal. As with every dinner, a spoonful of sorbet marks the halfway point. Tonight, cool cantaloupe on a spoonful of basil oil serves as punctuation. Savory tartlets follow; spinach, fennel and balsamic sauce lend heft to the entree.
Unlike before, this meal ends on a sigh. Strawberry "shortcake" lavishes macerated fruit and a ringer for creme fraiche on almond shells that bear an unfortunate similarity to birdseed. "Now I know I'm eating vegan," my dining companion says, pushing his plate away. It's not as if we aren't fully sated.
Except for the kale chips, I've never had the same thing twice at Elizabeth's Gone Raw. Petty says her chef of 19 years, Thomas Berry, has a repertoire of about 60 appetizers, entrees and desserts.
Elizabeth's Gone Raw has its limits. "Someone with nut allergies can't eat here," says Petty. And a vegan diet shouldn't be equated with a low-calorie one.
Although cooking sans (high) heat poses challenges for the chef, plating is a breeze for the staff; most of the dishes are either room temperature or cool.
Petty, who was declared cancer-free after a recent checkup, is her own best promotion for eating on the raw side. Gliding through the room, checking in on guests, the radiant hostess looks like a model for healthful living.
She's serving food of - and with - consequence.