Vegan fine dining: a retrospective review

I am not, nor have I ever been, nor will I ever be (at least I can’t imagine) a fine dining person. The anticipation of getting dressed up in an outfit worn only once before is almost guaranteed to be quelled sharply by the practice of going to the fancy place, sitting down and then… basically having to be on top form the entire time, being careful how you sit, speak, order, wait, actually eat impossible-looking cuisine with dignity, pay an eye-watering price, then leave. Still hungry. And now poor too.

However, in a city where there was limited time, bizarre weather, fatigue from trying to fit in all the daytime attractions at once, and not much for one to do alone in the evening besides face the nightlife alone (no) and watch Netflix in the hotel room (not what I paid a not insignificant amount to come all the way out here to do), and as a vegan (where approximately 999 out of 1000 places are unlikely to cater to you), one option presented itself more or less out of nowhere:

“Elisabeth’s Gone Raw” is a top-range raw vegan restaurant in Washington DC which I thought about trying but until then had stuck with grabbing veggie-friendly food on the go. I was hesitant when I saw the words “fine dining”, but also intrigued – usually “vegan” (“raw vegan!”) and “fine dining” are not to be found anywhere near each other in any description, and memories of being offered either a flimsy side salad, a few grains of rice, and the omnipresent “wild mushroom risotto”, along with urgent whispers to “use the right cutlery and no elbows on the table!” have stuck with me long enough to instill in me a lifelong aversion to that kind of place. I simply don’t belong. But… I saw that this place was only open on a Friday – that very evening – for a few hours, and serving an ever-changing weekly menu. Because it was raw vegan (my interest in which had been piqued during my previous visit to Prague) and very limited time only… I had to give it a go.

Upon arrival I almost ran back out again. This place had a cocktail bar and everything, I had no business being here. ALONE. But I was given a warm welcome just like any other patron and shown to the cocktail bar to await my place. One thing I learned is that these places are usually on one extreme, when it comes to serving single people: either acting delighted to see you and put themselves at your service from beginning to end, or completely ignoring you because you’re, well, not more than one person. Initially it looked like I was going to get the latter treatment, where they didn’t even acknowledge my presence. Not even when I eagerly pored over the menu and looked up every ten seconds, doing this on repeat for fifteen minutes or so. The three or four other people at the bar were getting the full attentiveness which can be expected in such a place, but when it came to serving me, suddenly other things needed to be done, like polishing cutlery. I was beginning to need a drink by that stage as what I had opted to do that evening – go to a fancy place on my own – began to sink in. I began to regret ever having such a stupid idea, as this is not the type of situation I naturally do well in. About five seconds before I made to gather my things and flee into the night, I was shown to my table.

Of course – OF COURSE – I was the only one there on my own. On a Friday night in the city. But I had long ago been forced to resign myself to this reality, so I just got on with the whole thing. Equipped with a kindle and phone, I settled in for the ride, and to my relief, was from then on treated no differently to anyone else for daring to show up without another human being in tow.

So now for the actual food experience:

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Weekly menu – because I honestly can’t remember the intricate descriptions of each plate

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The cocktail, “In the Garden of Eden”, was going to come in very handy… I had two of these

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This was the soup – yellow tomato and basil – which proved I was not in the real world anymore

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This “freebie” plate of cashew-encrusted kale chips was to be my social downfall – so many crumbs were accidentally made that the waiter had to produce a specially-designed instrument in order to sweep up the mess I made. The shame. The shame.

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Tatami wrap with “cream” and chive bloom – I had to actually start eating it to find out what this would involve…

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Vegan “caviar” – one of those bucket-list things to try – and whatever “yuzu pearls” are…

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Black sesame wrap with “goat cheese” – interesting combo, and about the time I realised I didn’t think I could manage much more

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Dessert #1: Mango sorbet with olive oil. Yup really.

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Dessert #2: “Spring root garden”

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Braised baby figs and eucalyptus tea

The quality of the food, I think I don’t really need to say but will anyway, was extremely high, and very inventive. They literally turned food into art and each dish was a miniature masterpiece. I felt like I was ruining the experience just by sticking my fork in, and very nearly did with the mess caused by the kale. Some people say no good can come of kale and while I normally disagree this was one situation where kale went very badly for me. Outside of this atmosphere, I think I would also have enjoyed this cuisine, and each bite felt incredibly healthy and alive. That’s the whole appeal of raw food, and it’s something I would commit to more often if it weren’t so heavy on price and preparation.

As for the dining-along experience… it was greatly alleviated by the fact that it was a vegan place, and therefore I felt more “in the right place” there than I would have otherwise. Also, the one and a quarter cocktails I had helped take the edge off a potentially painfully awkward situation, and when seeing the bill – that is the most I have ever paid for something I have put in my mouth and the most I ever will again.

Another major plus is that this raises the bar for vegan cuisine, as more people come out of curiosity and it gains a reputation. It proves that whether it’s a food truck, a cafe, or the type of place where they take your coat and actually narrate the “food experience” prior to eating, like a fairytale, it can compete with traditional cuisine. Hopefully, one day soon, it might even overtake it in popularity, and in terms of normalcy within the culture.

Would I do this again? Not in a non-vegan restaurant for sure. In a vegan restaurant? Maybe. In this vegan restaurant? Again, maybe. I might not even be in the neighbourhood ever again, for all I know – it’s not exactly handy from here. But even if I were, it would be an extremely infrequent occasion. I treated this evening like I would never go again, but it showed enough promise, in terms of its cuisine, that “never say never” is the best attitude to have.

 

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Travel and the big 3-0

It’s been a while because, well it’s always been a while since posting.

I started writing this in Washington DC, having arrived here via Montreal and Quebec City, but due to limited time had to finish it back home. More on that in a minute.

Still coming to terms with the turning-30 thing. I barely feel like I should go out of the house on my own, let alone do adulty things like pay bills, do jury service and travel – again more on that in a minute. My twenties have been a life study in not managing to catch up to everyone around me and not-quite getting a career, or proper “life”, going…

I really thought that by 30, that moment where things “began” would have happened a long time ago, but one small thing leads to yet another small thing and now here we are. I tried to write but was rarely inspired in the way which someone needs to be in order to be on the same calibre as the people they look up to. I tried other things, as documented in previous posts, but they also came to nothing, as if they never happened in the first place. This was seriously beginning to get me down, and was doing weird things to my brain. So after a while, I needed to make a change, if not by way of career, volunteering or otherwise, all of which I’ve tried and has ultimately not come to anything. The one thing left to do that I could think of was to go travelling.

I’m not a secret millionaire so obviously I wanted to do as much as manageable, and having been to Europe a few times I wanted to revisit an old friend – America – and try a new area along the way: Quebec, or French Canada. Something about the area fascinates me, so away I went to see the place.

It was absolutely freezing when I got into Montreal, which would set the tone for the rest of the time here. I knew the place was renowned for its bitterly cold winter season but this was coming into spring… still, I did what was available to do off-season. This involved: electric bike riding, cat-cafe visiting, museum-visiting, biodome-visiting, vegan food eating (Montreal is surprisingly good vegan food wise, even if sandwiches were mostly the order of the day for the purposes of convenience), trapeze-trying (utterly terrifying experience but since it’s the HQ of the Cirque de Soleil (and there were few outdoor activities available to do) it had to be done, and, rather more than I expected, cathedral visiting. And of course, photo-taking.

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Then I headed deeper into French Canadian territory, taking the train from Montreal to Quebec City, and that’s where the cold really struck with a vengeance. It was between -5 and -10 the whole time, so I dread to think what winter must be like there. Winter had not only come but was not budging…

Quebec City is a beautiful place, very European (now being a cliche thing to say), but with the tiny cobbled streets, the museums, cathedrals, cafes and all the French speaking, it really didn’t feel much like North America. Quebec City, it has to be said, is terrible for vegans but there was an awsome and unexpected little store where I basically got all the supplies I would need for my stay. Other unexpected delights included: a church/library, a film set hidden within the old city,,Montmorency Falls which is narrower but higher than Niagara Falls, and rather more encased in ice, and a rather charming if imposing cathedral where people left “evidence” of their former ailments, and tokens of gratitude, to St Anne de Beaupre, who was meant to be particularly good at granting miracles, which was nice to see. Also, stumbling across Quebec’s Literary and Historical Society (one of the oldest in North America, if not *the*) was a pleasant surprise, if only so that I could pore over a bit of (English language!) Emily Dickinson and modern Canadian poetry before closing time and with nothing but places open around the city where I have no business being, not being a Francophone. But on account of the cold, and huge lack of a vegan scene, I only scheduled a couple of days there and was looking forward to heading to Washington DC…

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Right now what to say about Washington DC which isn’t a cliche… not a lot probably. Maybe one thing. When I scheduled the trip to coincide with the gorgeous and ethereal “cherry blossom season” of early spring – along with the decent temperature at that time – I didn’t expect the weather system to be completely whacked out of shape, resulting in a cold spell – actually make that freezing – which followed me down from Quebec province. This meant that the cherry blossoms which I was hoping to see enshrouding the city were, apparently, “long gone”, but I was there and had three days to spend seeing the place. So I took the standard touristy tour of the city, seeing the main sites including The White House, the Capitol, the National Archives, the (barren) Tidal Basin, etc. which was all done whilst trying to maintain a core body temperature. The following day I ventured out on my own, trying to cover what I had not already seen, but which was do-able given the annoying inconsistency of the wifi, the transport system (not a walking city), and that led to gems such as the International Spy Museum and a couple examples of the Smithsonian Institute, namely the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of American History. Places like the FBI building and the Pentagon I already saw in passing (good luck trying to get inside) would’ve been interesting too, and having found out about the Masonic Lodge cluster around the city during my stay, made me want to bookmark that for next time, or at least some investigative reading in the meantime. All of these places which I did manage to see were intriguing and quirky in their own little ways, if depressingly overcrowded (and the Library of Congress is closed on Sundays – IMO this is simply Not On) – but simply trying to imagine what these places would be like, all on their own, made me desperate to see them, one day, at the lowest season possible…

Having spent some time debating whether to stay on and spend more time there, or call it a day and have another go another day another time, I opted for the latter and hope that a day will come where the things which I wanted to see and do, which the weather and season failed to enable, will do so next time.

In the next post I’ll outline one particular experience which is unlikely to be repeated ever again, but which, for posterity, I took it upon myself to sample, record, and present here. Three words: vegan fine dining.