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Vegetarians in Paradise

 Vegetarian Restaurant Review

Elf Cafe Z: The word elf conjures images of a joyful, diminutive humanoid. Transfer the joyful and diminutive tags to a tiny, elfin-like restaurant with a joyful purpose, and you'll find Elf Café, a vegetarian feel-good Echo Park dining spot with a warm, yet unpretentious ambience and comfortable seating.

R: The staff of the petite Elf Café knows just how to make its customers welcome. We were greeted cordially the moment we entered and noticed it was simply standard practice bestowed on everyone.

Z: The small bar, complete with tall stools, is an ideal spot to enjoy a tasty starter while watching Chef Timothy Maloof and his assistants prepare organic vegetarian and vegan Mediterranean specialties in their open kitchen. What prevents the café from being totally vegan is the cheese in many of the vegetarian dishes.

R: A few steps away from the bar a brick wall features a huge mirror above the small dining tables. Cylindrical drop lights provide the glow that gives the room its warmth and intimacy. The tables are attractive, deeply grained wood with a well-varnished coating, while the ceramic tile flooring hints of Italian, Greek, and Middle East destinations.

Z: The menu is a refreshing array of Mediterranean dishes cranked up with hip L.A. bistro styling. Because of the plethora of tempting choices for vegans, we turned to Jessica, our congenial server, for some suggestions. Her recommendation, Tahini-Avocado Puree, made an excellent starter we shared with our dining buddies Eric and Diana.

Elf Cafe R: Light and creamy, the generous portion of tahini, infused with cumin, and blended with fresh avocado was surrounded by wedges of whole-wheat pita and accented with Kalamata olives. Not only did the avocado lend a rich green hue to the tahini, but it also created an inviting silky smooth texture that kept us dipping in to the last bite.

Z: Eric, curious about the Organic Kale Salad, suggested we include it as another starter. We squarely faced our trepidation and were delighted with the dish. Kale can often have a strong, unpleasant and bitter overtone, but Chef Timothy created a dressing that made us fall in love with kale. Curly and naturally tinged with reddish purple edges, the Russian kale was piled high on the platter and dusted with hemp seeds. It was not only a taste treat, but it was also visually stunning.

R: I was intrigued with the fabulous dressing that left a delicate pool of red on the plate. Ween Callas, one of Elf's owners, told us Chef Tim created a blend of blood oranges, grapefruit, lemon juice, and seasonings to compliment the kale. Seldom found on restaurant menus, kale remains a rare treat--a highly nutritious one at that.

Elf Cafe Z: The three main courses we chose offered delicious diversity. The Organic Vegetable Tagine was a Moroccan medley of chunky stewed vegetables dotted with almonds and seasoned with a touch of cinnamon, then served over couscous. The bank of vegetables included zucchini, yellow squash, carrots, and eggplant. We noted a delicate hint of sweetness and discovered a few raisins hidden among the vegetables. A garnish of minced parsley and a condiment cup with a dollop of spicy sauce finished the dish to both taste and visual perfection.

R: The Roasted Beet and Braised Fennel was my kind of dish. Dominating the plate were two large beets, one golden and one red, and two giant chunks of braised fennel bulbs we almost mistook for onions. Accompanying the veggies, was a delicious wild rice pilaf garnished with walnuts. But the chef's special touch that really enhanced this creation was the port wine reduction glazing the beets and the fennel and pooling on the plate with a rich burgundy hue.

Elf Cafe Z: Our past experience with polenta brings visions of a solid wedge of grilled cornmeal. Polenta Maloof, however, was a base of soft polenta topped with a sublime mushroom ragout. The focal point of the dish turned out to be the gorgeous fresh asparagus spears, cooked just right to maintain their striking green color.

R: The dishes were uncomplicated, but the culinary touches were sophisticated--two contrasting touches that resulted in foods that were familiar, yet exceptionally flavorful. Each dish was attractive and complete with garnish. To me it was like the home-cooking you wish you could experience every night.

Z: We simply couldn't leave without dessert. Though the menu does not list any desserts, the chef prepares an exceptional Pear Tart Tartin, a homemade pastry topped with tall layers of fresh pears baked and caramelized in an orange blossom syrup. A generous size wedge fills the plate, while crushed pistachios encircle the tart. Every bite was a divine moment of soft, succulent sweetness. We loved it!

Elf Cafe R: Elf Café is unique in a multitude of ways. Its owners, Ween Callas and Scott Zwiezen, are young musicians in the Viva K band. The restaurant is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays because Scott uses the kitchen to prepare his Back to Life wholesale raw foods.

Z: The restaurant hours, from 6 to 11 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, are later than many restaurants in the area. When we arrived at 6 o'clock on Wednesday evening, we were the only diners. It seems the locals drop in on the late side to enjoy the casual dining. By the time we paid our check, the restaurant was filled with diners. And don't bother to whip out your credit card here--it's cash only.

R: This delightful, elfin dining spot that seats approximately 20 can be very busy on the weekends. Come early for a table and experience the eclectic specialties that include a Greek pastitsio, an Italian mozzarella and pesto panini, a Moroccan tagine, Lebanese lentils, and Egyptian fava beans. Appetizers range from $6 to $8, salads from $8 to $11, main dishes from $11 to $16.

Elf Café
2135 Sunset Blvd., Echo Park, CA 90026
Phone: 213-484-6829
Hours: Wednesday through Sunday 6:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.
Moderate prices

Reviewed May 2007

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