Recently at Lemoni Pizza & Kitchen in the Design District, co-owner Maria Eugenia Pelati cheerfully greeted a constant stream of regulars as they arrived via bike, skate, automobile, and foot. She seemed to know everyone, and everyone seemed to know her.
Later it became clear why. Lemoni is a throwback of sorts, an unselfconscious restaurant where you can chitchat with the proprietors, enjoy a leisurely meal, and not worry about what you're wearing.
Pelati opened the restaurant with friend Assia Dahrouch, Lemoni's chef. Dahrouch makes everything on the menu herself, from pizzas to pastries. She even prepares the vegan cheese. Chef Dahrouch, who hails from southwestern France, picked up cooking and a taste for fresh ingredients at a young age while watching her mother prepare meals using fresh vegetables from the family garden, tended by her father.
"My dishes reflect who I am," the chef explains. "My dishes are simple, but I put great flavor into them. I love the combinations of spices, herbs, vegetables, colors and flavors. Each ingredient is very important to me."
The Italian eatery has refocused its menu to feature organic, vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free items. Lemoni Pizza & Kitchen's new menu still contains a few traditional options but concentrates on health-conscious recipes.
We started with the raw gaspacho ($3 to $5), which was light, refreshing, and full of well-balanced flavors. Then we fought over the truffled mac 'n' cheese ($15), with kale and butternut squash; it is out of this world.
Salads followed, specifically the tofu vegan caprese ($15) and the vegan Greek ($14). The Greek was straightforward, but we were profoundly impressed by the vegan caprese, with tomatoes, avocados, arugula, basil, and remarkable homemade vegan "mozzarella" and "Parmesan."
Next came the vegan flora pizza ($14 to $20), fresh homemade dough dressed with a cashew-based "cream" sauce topped with butternut squash, kale, almonds, and the aforementioned vegan Parm.
Lemoni is a vegan and vegetarian haven to be sure, but if you have meat-eating lunch and dinner buddies, don't worry. The meatballs ($10) are heavenly (vegan option available), plus, the chef's signature pie, Assia's pizza ($13 to $19), is a work of art. The creative combination of merguez (lamb sausage, imported from France), kalamata olives, onions, tomato, parsley, spicy tomato sauce, and mozzarella cheese, drizzled with tzaziki sauce, leaves no doubt that Dahrouch is an artisan.
We ended our meal with a trio of desserts -- ricotta chocolate chip cheesecake ($7), tiramisu ($5), and a raw berry tart ($9). The cheesecake and tiramisu were pretty standard fare, but the raw berry tart -- fresh berries and "cream" made from soy and cashews piled on top of a raw crust that included dates and cashews -- was extraordinary.
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As good as the food is, the price point (especially considering that everything is homemade and many organic ingredients are used) and the availability of Funky Buddha on tap solidify the fact that Lemoni Pizza & Kitchen is a gem.
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