This article was first published in Saveur in Issue #127
Herbivores, rejoice! The growing ranks of superb vegetarian restaurants across the country means you need never settle for a steamed-vegetable platter again.
Elf Cafe is a quintessential Echo Park restaurant—a tiny, romantic eatery where veggies are turned into complex dishes. Chef Dave Martinez is serious about his food philosophy, from local and non-GMO ingredients to specified sea salts and cooking oils. Early proponents of the kale salad, the kitchen at Elf also makes a rich, wild exotic mushroom risotto and a kofta with saffron couscous, speckled with orange blossom dates and crispy chickpeas.
This Echo Park eatery has been a neighborhood favorite for close to a decade among meat-eaters and vegetarians, alike. The food is so hearty and flavorful that you just don't miss the meat at Elf. Chef David Martinez's Mediterranean-flavored dishes include king oyster mushroom kofta with saffron cous cous, scallion yogurt, crispy chickpeas and orange blossom dates. There's also a tempting array of starters, including risotto croquettes with smoked gouda beer sauce and dips, like cilantro hummus and the avocado tahini puree.
Elf Cafe is located at 2135 Sunset Blvd; (213) 484-6829
LA Weekly Best of 2012
Technically vegetarian, the current menu at Elf Cafe is more than vegan-accessible — with 14 dishes listed as either vegan or adaptable. In a cozy space in Echo Park next to Mohawk Bend (another vegan-friendly spot), chef Scott Zwiezen is serving dishes with mostly Mediterranean flavors. Those who balk at seitan and tempeh will appreciate that Zwiezen uses neither, choosing instead to explore ingredients of the vegetable, grain and legume genre. His customizable baked tart with thyme and garlic is too plush with the trappings of great comfort food to dislike. Reservations are highly recommended, as an open table is rare. —Christine Chiao
Saveur Magazine March 2010
This article was first published in Saveur in Issue #127
Huffington Post February 2010
Chef Speak: Scott Zwiezen
by Heather Taylor
Contemporary art gallery owner and LA food enthusiast
Posted: February 4, 2010 11:02 AM
In the hands of Scott Zwiezen at Echo Park's cozy Elf Cafe, humble ingredients are transformed into something rich and completely delicious -- as with his recipe for Risotto-Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms.
A roasted beet, braised fennel and wild rice - sounds like a fairly benign plate of healthy fare. In the hands of Scott Zwiezen, head chef of Echo Park's cozy and low-lit Elf Cafe, these humble ingredients are transformed into something rich, surprising and completely delicious. It is Zwiezen's creativity, along with his commitment to making delicious food (that just so happens to lack meat), that keeps diners coming back for more. Above all else, he's cooking with love and it's impossible not to notice.
With a background in painting and music, Zwiezen moved to LA in 1997 and landed in the film industry. A culinary neophyte, he adopted a vegetarian lifestyle in 2004 and officially leaped into the world of food by starting a raw food business with partner Jennifer Strand. Two years later he opened Elf Cafe with his longtime bandmates Astara Calas and Evan Haros. With around ten tables and limited counter seating, Elf is packed nearly every night. But you get the sense that even if there were fifty tables, people would still be lining up to taste Zwiezen's Middle Eastern and Mediterranean-inspired fare. Dishes like Tahini Avocado Puree served with warm garlic pita, Stuffed Mediterranean Dolma, and Apple Tarte Tatin with homemade orange blossom syrup appeal to both meat eaters and non-meat eaters alike, making Elf simply a great place to go for a satisfying meal. You'll just happen to feel good after eating it.
Entering the dining room and exposed kitchen at Elf Cafe.
Heather Taylor: How did your love of food develop?
Scott Zwiezen: I think it was the first time I ate at a Middle Eastern restaurant and tasted those flavors. This experience ignited something that's been with me ever since but only really took hold when I became a vegetarian and started experimenting in the kitchen with raw food.
HT: When I think of Elf, I think of these words: cozy, delicious, vegetarian, small, satisfaction. Please describe Elf in your words.
SZ: What we try to do at Elf is to create an experience that's just as fulfilling as any restaurant without the onus of being a "vegetarian place." I cook primarily Eastern Mediterranean style food. Instead of simply classifying ourselves as a vegetarian restaurant, it's important to me that the dishes be flavorful and satisfying and just happen not to contain meat. We don't use any fake meat products; the vegetables stand on their own as entrees in the Middle Eastern tradition, and are far healthier than processed imitation meats. And of course, we use as much local and sustainable produce as possible.
HT: It looks like you run a really tight ship in the Elf kitchen. Can you tell me a bit about the unique layout? I've heard something about toaster ovens.
SZ: We opened Elf on a tight budget and since this was my first restaurant, I really didn't know what I was doing. The previous establishment in our location was a coffee shop. It lacked a hood or any real kitchen set up, and I figured we would open with the kind of appliances you would find in a small cafe like that. We wound up with an all-electric kitchen with hot plates and a convection oven. I had no idea what to expect, but I honestly never imagined that Elf would explode as quickly as it did. We found ourselves at capacity most nights, working very hard to crank out the amount and quality of food that comes out of full service kitchens. It is really tricky.
HT: Sounds incredibly tricky. Although every time I've eaten at Elf, everything seems rather seamless. Do you have the desire to expand into a more traditional kitchen?
SZ: We're actually currently in the process of installing a full service kitchen. We recently acquired the space next door and eventually would like to expand into it, which will allow us to become a more fully realized version of ourselves.
HT: Lastly, is the restaurant a political statement for you?
SZ: No, it's really just a restaurant. I mean, yes - the idea of living with less and conserving resources is of great interest to me. And it does make me happy every time someone tells me I changed their opinion of vegetarian food. But mainly, I just wanted to create the kind of restaurant where I personally would like to eat and hang out.
LA Weekly Best Vegan Friendly Restaurant in Los Angeles
10 Best Vegan-Friendly Restaurants in L.A.: Happy Earth Day
By Christine Chiao Fri., Apr. 20 2012
Categories: Best Of L.A., Vegan
1. Elf Café:
Technically vegetarian, the current menu is more than vegan-accessible, with 17 dishes listed as either vegan or adaptable. In a cozy space next to Mohawk Bend, another vegan-friendly spot, chef Scott Zwiezen is serving dishes with mostly Mediterranean flavors. Those who balk at seitan and tempeh will appreciate that Zwiezen uses neither, choosing instead to explore ingredients of the vegetable, grain and legume genre. His customizable baked tart with thyme and garlic is too plush with the trappings of great comfort food to dislike. Reservations are highly recommended, as an open table is rare. 2135 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles; (213) 484-6829.
Leading up to this year's Best of L.A. issue (due out Oct. 4) -- and probably beyond, at this rate -- we'll be counting down, in no particular order, 100 of our favorite dishes.
43: Raw Kale Salad at Elf Café.
Fifty-some entries into this list and we feel like we need a virtual detox -- the onslaught of pork, pizza, and pie is taking it's toll. From time to time this happens, which is why places like Echo Park's Elf Café exist, a place where you can eat vegetarian and healthful without feeling like you're sacrificing your dignity to the green goddess of New Age feel-good-ery.
Back before kale was in vogue at almost every hip restaurant in town, Elf was sending out plates of the stuff like it was cruciferous candy. The most popular salad here is basically a mountain of bright green heaped with ripe avocado, feta cheese, spicy red pepper paste and then tossed in a pungent dressing involving enough lemon to cure scurvy and enough garlic to kill vampires.
A seven day juice cleanse? Uh, we'll pass. But perhaps a week subsisting on this kale salad might be doable.
"Vegetarians rejoice" over the "well-crafted", "soul-soothing" dishes at this "hipster" Echo Park Mediterranean offering a variety of "savory" vegan choices for a moderate price; it packs "lots of tables in a small space" ("reservations are a must"), but the nonetheless "charming" locale remains a "pure joy" for many.
I’m known for sharing tips on the best places to eat – it comes very easily to me, especially when the eater is adventurous or open to anything.