If you’ve ever tried to assemble Ikea furniture, you know the importance of following directions. The illustrated instructions will show you which screw goes in what hole, and when you’re done, you somehow end up with a sectional. But if you ignore them (because why should you listen to some Swede?) you’re likely to end up with 27 extra screws and a “couch” that’s actually an oversized ottoman.
That’s what it’s like to eat at Elf Cafe, a vegetarian spot in Echo Park where you can have a solid Mediterranean meal, as long as you order correctly. If you don’t, it’s easy to end up with the restaurant equivalent of a bunch of extra screws - plates full of unfinished food.
So here’s what we’d suggest: the risotto with hen of the woods mushrooms. It’s surprisingly light, and the cheesy rice is perfectly cooked. The section of the menu with pita and dips - like hummus and garlic toum and labneh and grilled dates - is great for sharing. And there’s a dish with long beans and kitchari (spiced crispy rice) we’ll order every time we come here.
The problem with the rest of the dishes at Elf is salt. Even something like the kale salad has too much of it, overpowering everything else in the dish. The crispy oyster mushrooms are so fresh and well-cooked that we could eat them on their own - except they’re doused with too-salty gremolata, slaw, and aioli. At a vegetarian restaurant, vegetables should be the main attraction - and here, the heavy-handed use of salt wipes out most, if not at all, of the vegetables' flavors and textures.
That said, Elf Cafe does a lot of other things very well. It’s a dark and intimate restaurant, great for a date, entertaining out-of-town guests, or having conversations with the vegan in your life about the politics of their adult dodgeball league. When you walk in the door, the host will probably know your name - mostly because Elf asks you to email for reservations ahead of time (but if you call ahead night-of, they’ll hold a seat at the bar for you). If you do sit at the bar, you can watch dishes being made in the open kitchen, and place bets on which ones are yours.
There’s a lot to like about Elf Cafe - which is why it’s especially unfortunate that you need an ordering guide to have a good meal here. But that’s what we’re here for. Now, if you’re looking for help building that Ikea couch, you’re going to have to find someone else.
This should be a standout - the kale and oranges are crisp and fresh, and we like the feta, sumac pepitas, and avocado that comes on top. But it’s also so salty you’ll go through three cups of water before you finish it (assuming you actually can).
Again, we like this idea in theory - a minty, yoghurty sauce should go well with garlic greens and delicata. But the vegetables had so much seasoning that we couldn’t taste the freshness of the herbs in the sauce.
One of the good ones - this is basically just really good whipped hummus with a garlic sauce, served with warm pita bread, covered in olive oil. Tough to mess this up, and Elf Cafe doesn’t.
The long beans are tossed with excellent crispy rice and a bunch of spices, and they’re fantastic.
These are great, fresh, well-cooked mushrooms, with so much salty sauce that the dish is ruined. Skip this.
Hen of the woods mushrooms always lead to us imagining foragers combing through the forest, stuffing bunches of fungi into satchels. These are probably just grown on a farm, but either way, they’re crispy and great, and come over an excellent (and very cheesy) risotto.
This is the best thing here. It’s also one of the best chocolate desserts in town - made with high-quality dark chocolate, it’s dense and decadent, but not too sweet. Get one for yourself and one for when you’re sitting in bed later tonight thinking about this.