I’m a bit flummoxed, but there you have it. Dessert-of-the-year-thus-far must go to a mostly-organic-vegan-raw food restaurant, open since December just off the main drag in downtown Gatineau, for its strawberry-cream chocolate tart.
It’s raw food strawberry-cream chocolate tart, to be precise.
Given that it’s a vegan dish, there’s not really any cream. Or butter. And it sports a crust made of nuts. It’s also fashioned with raw chocolate – the very expensive pure stuff that keeps you wide awake and cursing raw food people all night. But once I’d weathered a couple of heavy-eyed days well enough to forgive them, I am now able to recognize its brilliance.
“The first few batches of this tart were decent enough,” explained raw foodist server, Tyler, when asked if that pink pie in the display fridge was any good. “But they didn’t really take our breath away, you know?” I nodded politely, thinking him endearingly dramatic. “This, though, this is her best batch ever.
“This is,” he said, his hand fluttering over his heart and his eyes receding into the back of his head, “truly amazing.”
I was full. And feeling like I could have used a couple of Tums to help with the house raw crackers I had been nibbling endlessly. But given that theatrical endorsement, it seemed a shame not to give the tart a whirl. Not that I was – hype notwithstanding – expecting to like it much. To me, refined sugar, cow’s milk butter and full-fat cream are integral to the making of a delectable dessert. This tart, apparently concocted with a mixed nut and seed crust, agave nectar, date juice, coconut cashew “butter,” strawberries and raw cacao nibs, didn’t scream, “Order me.” But it was shockingly good. The crust was nubbly enough to give the smooth, rich layers of strawberry “cream,” chocolate “ganache” and strawberry mousse a terrific textural balance, the guts with an adult whisper of sweetness and the layers altogether luscious.
I could really have used a double espresso to go with it. But no such luck. Not here. I washed it down with another mug of grassy tea.
La Belle Verte is run by the Lavoie sisters, Rafaele and Nina. Open since December, it’s a cheery, high-ceilinged room of many bright shades of green, energizing art and garage-sale furniture finds. No two tables match. Chairs have a similar curbside appeal. Plants grow in and around windows, and perch on an ornate piano that doesn’t look playable. On a shelf at the back of the restaurant are books extolling the benefits of going raw (“You’re very welcome to borrow them,” Tyler says.) and others filled with vegan recipes. At the front is a self-serve tea and water bar.
There’s a team of raw “cooks” in the open kitchen and the whirr and grind of the high-speed blender is the soundtrack for much of our lunch. About two-thirds of the dishes on the one-page menu sport sun signs, indicating raw/living food items – hence the sound of grating and grinding.
Salads are fresh and lively, though with an unremarkable sameness to them. We try the house salad, the Cleopatra (mostly for the “caramelized onions”) and the “From the Sea.” Forgetting about the sun sign attached to these salads, the so-called “caramelized” onions are in fact dehydrated onions sweetened with date juice, and the “dulse seaweed” is actually dulse powder sprinkled in the dressing. The latter is slightly saltier, but other than that, the salads are interchangeable.
We end up gravitating toward the cooked dishes and the vegan sandwiches. The Zorba is constructed with cashew “cheese” and black olives, roasted peppers, sprouts and a pile of grated vegetables, moistened with a sundried tomato tapenade, all on quality bread. The soup (leek and coconut, very good) and sandwich combo at $10 makes a nice lunch.
La Belle Verte Bowl is a mound of either brown rice or soba noodles, topped with steamed greens, carrots, onions, mushrooms and roasted tofu, drizzled with a choice of sauces.
There are pizzas (oven-baked) and soups (the dal is totally satisfying) and a number of other desserts worth a detour (try the lemon curd tart and the raw chocolate macaroon-like things.)
My visits were both over lunch, but La Belle Verte has recently extended its evening hours, staying open until 9 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays. Think I’ll try a pizza next time, if only to earn another slice of tart.