When I show up to Ellary’s Greens, it’s 4 p.m. and shift change time. There are just a few customers relaxing over their food, and Leith Hill, the owner, is at the back communal table, working. She jumps up to greet me, and as we walk back up to the front, employees give her a hugs and a kisses goodbye, which she returns effusively, her curly hair flying.
We settle in at the front, family-style table. The lights hanging above our heads are made from recycled cardboard. At the center is a tiny ecosystem of living ferns and moss. And below are small shelves to hold your phone while it’s plugged into the outlets built into the table. (There’s no wifi, unfortunately. They don’t want the whole neighborhood piggybacking.)
Leith hands me a menu from which I can choose, she says, anything I want. I’m overwhelmed–I didn’t realize I was getting a free taste test! As soon as I point out the mint cocoa chip smoothie, with coconut water, coconut milk, raw cacao nibs, coconut sugar, fresh mint, and ice, she dispatches an order to the kitchen. It comes out quickly, and tastes like fresh, real mint—which it is. It’s an infinitely healthier version of mint chocolate chip ice cream, and while it may not taste as decadent, I think the glow-y feeling I’m getting is worth the trade. (By the way, the organic juices and smoothies can be made with cows milk, coconut milk, almond milk and soy milk—your choice.) I sip it slowly, nibbling on the cocoa nibs, while Leith tells me her story.
“Ellary’s Greens is a restaurant designed for all eaters. If you are vegan, we have great options for you. If you want meat we have great options for you too. We really believe that food can be delicious and nutritious, and when I say nutritious, I mean really nourishing.”
While Leith respects vegetarian, vegan, and raw restaurants like Pure Food and Wine, Juice Generation and Candle 79, she wanted a place where she, as a vegan or vegetarian, could go and enjoy a meal with her meat-loving husband and sons, and everyone would leave happy and full. The idea for Ellary’s Greens has been kicking around in Leith’s mind for almost 19 years, since she was living on Long Island, breastfeeding her son and going hungry trying and failing to find nourishing and quick food options. “It’s always been extremely important to me—the link between diet, nutrition and health and wellness and also exercise.” Raised in New Orleans by a health food nut who mail ordered organic food from California, she’s been a pescatarian officially since age 14.
Sustainability is at the center of this new cafe, which opened in April. All the wines are biodynamic or organic, all the beers are organic, local or gluten-free. Ingredients are local whenever possible, from suppliers like Murray’s Cheese, Lucki 7 farms, Ridge Produce, Brooklyn Kombucha, Raaka Virgin Chocolate and more. You might notice that there aren’t a lot of meat replacements on the menu. It’s a conscious decision, Leith says, because many meat-like products are very processed. “Tofu is the most processed thing we have,” she says. And the vegan baked goods, by Director of Operations Louis Centeri, use whole grain flours. Even their cleaning supplies are eco-friendly.
Ellary’s Greens is in the space where Grey Dog used to be, and you wouldn’t recognize it. They tore out walls and a bathroom and punched a window through the back to let in light from the outside. There’s a metal trellis of leaf cutouts above, that turn the restaurant into a sort of garden as night falls. They’re in the process of putting in a herb garden in the back.
Leith was a school director before this, which shows in the way she interacts with her customers and team. When a customer leans in the open window to say hi, Leith pops up from her seat, “Hiiii!”
The executive chef, Alex Oefeli, joins us at the front. He’s been in the NYC restaurant business since 1995, most recently honing his healthy-food craft while head of prepared foods at Whole Foods Tribeca. But at Ellary’s, he had to rethink the way he prepares foods, to work within Leith’s strict standards. “There’s no butter or cream in anything,” Alex says. (Gasp! What would Julia Child say?) “It was very interesting getting used to that. It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. When you eliminate that, it opens up multiple avenues of things to use. What was equally interesting to me was the gluten-free approach. Because one thing I avoid here is to avoid replacing something. I don’t take dishes that are not gluten-free, and then replace them until they are gluten-free. I approach it as a gluten-free dish from the get go.”
Alex must like a challenge, because he has meticulously crafted a creative yet familiar and comforting menu of nourishing goodies that will appeal to anyone. You can get the house-cured and house-smoked bacon made from pork belly sourced from upstate, or–on the opposite end of the spectrum–vegan green thai tofu curry. Sizes are made for sharing–larger than tapas, but smaller than a full entrée. Four symbols run down the left side of the menu, denoting vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free and dairy-free. If you order something gluten-free, they’ll ask you if it’s a preference or dietary restriction, so they can prepare your food accordingly. Same goes for nut or shellfish allergies.
“We have many people who come in here who are Celiacs, as well as nut and shellfish allergies,” Leith says. “We want to let the kitchen know so we can keep them safe.” With this attention to detail, regulars are starting to visit three or four times a week.
I finish my smoothie, and next they bring out a slab of their bacon (and it really is a slab–thick and juicy), which has been a specialty of Chef Alex’s for some time. But for Ellary’s Greens, he switched from pink salt for curing to celery juice, which has naturally occuring nitrite. I take a taste and it melts in my mouth. This is what pure and authentic gluttony tastes like. They also bring out a bowl of red swiss chard with roasted crimini mushrooms. It’s dressed in a pine vinaigrette made from—get this—pine needles Leith and Alex forage from upstate and Connecticut, plus pine nuts for vegan creaminess. Then there is the roasted brussel sprouts with celery root, orange zest, and pecans, which pair wonderfully with the bacon.
This is the kind of nouveau health food that isn’t afraid of fat, it’s just afraid of processed foods and allergens. And I am so down with that. I’m working my way through my plates with gusto, but I can’t eat all of it, so they package it up for me in cardboard takeout containers and put it all in a paper bag.
“We have people who come in here and say, ‘You can taste the love in your food,'” Leith says. “The only time we ever say anything to the kitchen about quieting down is not because anyone is ever shouting—kitchens can be very angry—it’s because they’re laughing so hard. It’s exactly the atmosphere that you want. There is nothing sweeter than being on the steps halfway between the kitchen and the dining room and the dining room is full and everyone is laughing, and in the kitchen everyone is laughing. It really makes the heart sing.”
Ellary’s Greens is at 33 Carmine Street in the West Village. It’s open for lunch and dinner, and will be opening for breakfast soon.