Raw Power: Can Uncooked Food Be Hot?
After almost 18 hours in a dehydrator, it turns out that Ritz cracker-sized bits of kale turn crisp.
The unlikely greenery, which at Elizabeth’s Gone Raw serves the introductory role that a basket of rolls might play at Olive Garden, hides under a muted, marigold-colored coating from a dehydrated cashew base. The aggressive heat of cayenne and jalapeño, balanced with bright lemon and nutty nutritional yeast, are downright addictive. “Don’t fill up on kale” might be this unlikely outpost’s equivalent of “don’t fill up on bread.”
The rules for dining at D.C.’s gourmet raw food temple are simple: a $75, five-course prix fixe (with an optional $30 organic and biodynamic wine pairing) containing no dairy, gluten, soy, meat, fish, processed sugar, or caffeine. Despite the omissions, owner Elizabeth Petty is going easy on you. Her own eating habits also involve refraining from wine and fruit. After a breast cancer diagnosis, Petty, once on what she calls “a normal American diet,” turned to both food and chemotherapy to heal.
“It’s exciting for this area because people are so curious and they’re ready for a new culinary concept,” the slim Petty says. “People are so interested in eating healthy and how they feel and look. Plus, raw is so fashionable.” She then name-drops celebrities taken with raw eating, including Madonna, Danny Glover, Angelina Jolie, and Brad Pitt. Trend-smitten celebs may not be a great culinary argument, but Petty actually cites herself as Exhibit A. She radically changed her diet and she’s alive.
As someone who eats vegetarian roughly 85 percent of the time, I’m not spooked by forgoing flesh. On the other hand, as someone who likes to eat well, the news that nothing in the kitchen is cooked over 115 degrees makes me wonder how the meal will taste—and if it can fill my empty stomach.
Petty cooked in a café in London, worked a vineyard in France, taught English in Kenya and then, in 1990, bought The Catering Company of Washington, and later would move the business from Cleveland Park to 13th and L streets NW. There she created Elizabeth’s on L, an event space with a full kitchen.
After she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Petty spent three weeks at Hippocrates Health Institute in West Palm Beach, Fla., learning about sprouts and oxygenated blood cells. A raw foodist was born.
Two years after her mastectomy, Petty wakes up every morning and drinks both wheatgrass and her “green juice,” a concoction of celery, cucumbers and spinach, among other similarly hued plants. D.C., it turned out, wasn’t a great place for such a diet. When Petty turned 50 and her husband asked her where she wanted to dine, the pair had to jump on a train to New York for a proper raw dining experience at Pure Food and Wine.
The exquisite meal—and the long train ride—convinced her it was worth the time and the money to start a raw food business in the District. A few months ago, she opened up her catering space for the weekly experiment known as Elizabeth’s Gone Raw—introducing Washington to coconut fettuccine, spicy kelp noodles, and chocolate hemp crackers.
Diners walk up to the second floor of the building, which was previously used as a recording studio for elevator music. The split-level space—usually the province of catered board meetings and rehearsal dinners—feels more like a museum thanks to its large detailed carpets, soft paintings of women, and a gilded mirror from France. There are no hippie-dining and ultra-trendy aesthetics here. “If Moby opened up this restaurant in New York City,” a friend joked, “it wouldn’t look like a conference room.”
Each week brings a new menu. A January dinner started with a familiar salad, grapefruit segments and avocado slices coexisting for a sour-meets-creamy mouth marriage. While the combo began the meal nicely, it didn’t further the cause of high-end raw food, as the salad could be found on plenty of tables across the area.
The next dish, though, reminds me of the kitchen’s effort to transform fruits, vegetables, and nuts into a full meal. Dehydration is the trick of choice at Elizabeth’s Gone Raw. This method, Petty says, depletes the ingredient of its water content, keeps it nutrient- and enzyme-rich, and intensifies the flavor. Additionally, ingredients become pliable, allowing raw foods to transform into a variety of shapes and textures.
To create the coconut curry wrap, the meat and water of a young Thai coconut are pureed and thinned on a sheet and placed in one of the restaurant’s 12 dehydrators. The wrap is delicate—not as sturdy as a flour tortilla, but tougher than a crêpe—and doesn’t exude the commanding coconut flavor found in the shavings atop a carrot cake. It encloses a samosa-like combination of cauliflower, peas, curry, and cumin.
The meal also provides something of a workout: It’s not easy to twirl slithery kelp noodles in order to keep them on the fork long enough to dunk into a fiery chili paste of red jalapeño, cayenne, garlic, and olive oil. Just because dishes are raw doesn’t mean they’ve been loaded with an ingredient list rivaling that of an Oaxacan mole negro to compensate for the lack of heat during the cooking process. Although the simplicity is appealing, these aren’t real noodles, just like spaghetti squash isn’t actually made from flour, water, and egg.
Petty sees many vegetarians and vegans bring nervous omnivore dates to her restaurant. “Raw is intimidating,” she says. “It’s like any other cuisine that you’re not familiar with. There are so many misconceptions.” After tucking her hair behind her ear, she provides some advice for those scared to eat a meal without meat: “Try not to focus as much on the raw, instead focus on trying something new.”
This reminded me of convincing my little sister to try Ethiopian food during a visit to the District a few years ago. (And not letting my friend fill her ear about his hatred of the bread, injera, which he thought tasted like T-shirts.) I promised her juicy meat and spicy vegetables, but even better, something to tell her college friends back in Pennsylvania.
Even if not every dish succeeds at Elizabeth’s Gone Raw, it’s worth just admiring the composition, technical skill, and creativity in what’s being served.
A Valentine’s Day dinner featured cacao, beloved by raw foodists for both its chocolate flavor and high concentration of magnesium. In its raw form—like fingernail polish with an edgy black-purple matte finish—it tastes bitter at first, not at all like any chocolate from my past. But the cacao leaves the sweetness behind when it spins into chocolate “crème fraiche,” courtesy of macadamia nuts and coconut milk. A dollop tops an unfortunately cold rosemary pear soup. (There’s something primevally upsetting about cold soup in the winter.)
For dessert, nuts are once again the hero as cashew flour becomes the base for a cacao cake with lavender. Because nuts are used in nearly every course, the dinner isn’t as healthy as I thought it would be. But that doesn’t mean the cake isn’t worth trying. It tastes rich, not dense, and finds sweetness thanks to agave and depth courtesy of cacao butter. The addition of agave brings out a more traditional chocolate flavor from the cacao, which turns the treat into something relatable.
“It’s so personal what you put in your body,” Petty says. She doesn’t proselytize her diners, but instead offers a personal way to connect with ingredients. Of course, she’s the first to tell you that Elizabeth’s Gone Raw is a treat—not exactly the average raw-foodist meal. “This would be your birthday dinner,” she says, smiling.
Just like many fully-cooked birthday treats, this one doesn’t skimp on the fat. And it also leaves you feeling full.
Elizabeth’s Gone Raw; 1341 L St. NW, (202) 347-8349, elizabethsgoneraw.com
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Photos by Darrow Montgomery