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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