“We’re literally seed to table and back again,” Ami Beach Shadle says, and unlike many people these days, she’s using the word “literally” literally.
The raw foods chef and her husband, executive chef Mark Shadle (formerly the co-owner and head chef at It’s Only Natural in Middletown, and the recipient of numerous culinary awards, accolades and honors), own and operate Branford restaurant G-Zen, catering to curious palates and questioning minds. Here, where “G” stands for “green,” creamy artisanal cheeses are crafted from cashews, as are cheesecakes and ice creams. The menu—empty of meat, dairy or eggs and full of organic, non-GMO ingredients—is about 30% raw, with zero refined sugars. Many of the foods in play come from the couple’s very own farm: Shadle Farm in Durham, CT, replete with an idyllic white farmhouse built in the 1730s.
So it is that the Shadles, often with help from a happy-to-be-there team of employees, are able to plant food, grow it, harvest it, transport it, prep it, cook it, compose it and serve it. Then whatever’s unused gets composted back at the farm to benefit future harvests. The business also deploys a food truck, GMonkey Mobile, which, aside from serving “farm 2 street” food, as the truck’s tagline puts it, helps transport things between the farmstead and the restaurant.
“Seed to table and back again,” indeed.
For all their locavore leanings, the Shadles offer shockingly global cuisine out of G-Zen. Ever had a dim sum appetizer ($14, pictured fifth) paired with a pierogi entree ($19)? Here, you can do that. You could also do vegan crab cakes ($10) to start, finishing with raw tacos featuring walnut-based “taco meat” ($24). Spanakopita ($10), an udon noodle bowl ($17), a coconut curry ($21) and a Moroccan stew ($21) also make appearances.
During a visit last week, Mark seemed particularly enthused about showing me the current specials, some more permanent than others, all scribed on chalkboard before each service. The “Handcrafted Cashew Pesto Torte” special ($24, pictured first) I tried hit just about every mark, combining textures and flavors in novel- and tasty-enough ways that you really want to savor the experience while it’s happening. The dish featured fried, spice-crusted green tomatoes picked that very day, I was told, and to my delight, the juicy freshness and bite hadn’t been cooked out of them. The cashew-based twist on a torte, like a slab of soft cheese with a green racing stripe down the middle, was pepper-crusted on one side, with a spicy, herbal pesto running through the center. On the other side of the plate was a pile of al dente white beans with bits of rosemary packing the right amount of punch. A green sauce, bright like a lime, was sparingly drizzled over it all.
A much less aggressively seasoned but likewise delicious special—and, given its name, probably a longer-term one—is “Chef Mark’s Famous Butternut Pasta Ravioli” ($26, pictured third). Arrayed around a pile of crunchy but yielding “garlic greens”—collards, I think—were five ravioli stuffed with a tofu-based basil ricotta filling, sauced with a non-dairy sage butter concoction and sprinkled with toasted pine nuts. Herbaceousness came through in the pasta filling, which was soft and luscious, with a touch of fortitude.
Something similar could be said about the texture of the regular-menu Raw Lemon Lavender Cheesecake ($14, pictured sixth), a cheese-less feat of food science resulting in deep pleasure for yours truly (and making sense of the price tag). Atop a supple nutty crust, the cake body was extremely smooth, a vehicle for occasionally tart lemon marrying surprisingly well with the floral note provided by a sprinkling of tiny purple-yellow lavender seeds. A big artful squiggle of acai berry coulis crossed the plate below it, adding a welcome zing of sweetness whenever the cake was mopped across.
When the meal was over, while preparing to head out, I overheard a shellshocked diner gushing to his server, “I’m someone who actually likes meat, and this is so good.” I didn’t have the heart, or maybe I had too much of it, to interrupt the joy and ask what he was having. But I know it came with ketchup—“Even the ketchup is so good,” he marveled after the waitress had gone—meaning he was likely downing the Zen Burger ($14) or the Grilled Tempeh Reuben sandwich ($15), each of which is kind of meaty, and each of which comes with a house-made smoked hickory take on the popular condiment.
That ketchup is just the smallest example of a pair of emblematic features at G-Zen: a pervasive attention to detail, and an intense ambition to do things better—more healthfully, more sustainably, more deliciously—than they’ve been done before.
2 East Main St, Branford (map)
Tues-Thurs 4-9pm, Fri 4-9:30pm, Sat 11am-9:30pm
Written and photographed by Dan Mims.