Knowing the "fit foodie" that I am, one of my girl friends recently told me about a new gluten and dairy free cafe that had opened up in Fairfield, NJ and I just had to check it out. At first, I visited their website, perused the menu and what they were all about. When I finally went there, you can always catch owner, Luciana Contuzzi, helping customers at the front addressing questions or concerns, especially mine!
The menu consists of smoothies, smoothie bowls, salads, pizza, toasts with delectable toppings from avocado to homemade hazelnut spread and baked goods from brownies, cookies, muffins, cupcakes and the list goes on. What I truly love about their menu is its transparency. For all staple items, the ingredients are listed so you never have to question what you're eating. With having a dairy and gluten intolerance, this is especially important for me.
Okay, so now for the review. I tried as many items as I could without spending TOO much and here are my thoughts...
I ordered the Farmhouse salad which has chickpeas, cucumber, red onion, tomatoes, bell peppers with a side of balsamic vinaigrette. I opted for no tomato well because I'm not a fan and balsamic vinegar on the side (no oil). The first thing I noticed was the vibrant color of the veggies. This is a great sign that the produce is fresh and organic. Though basic, all the veggies were crisp and fresh. A little goes a long way when you're working with good ingredients.
Next up was the clean quinoa salad which again didn't disappoint. it was loaded with avocado, carrots, cucumbers which were fresh, crisp and the quinoa was cooked perfectly. The only thing I would've liked was more dressing because the portion size is super generous!
The Avocado "krust" which is basically mashed avocado with a spice blend on gluten free toast. I got mine topped with an over-easy egg which again was very tasty (are you starting to see a trend, LOL). I can always appreciate a crunchy and not overly chewy gluten free bread because most on the market are just terrible. If you're looking for a little more spice, they have a cart off to the side with some condiments and their own spice blend to jazz anything up. I didn't get a chance to try the other "krust" options, but I will definitely be back to try them out!
The final savory item I tried was the chickpea crust pizza topped with broccoli and cashew ricotta. I'm sorry to say I wasn't a fan. The crust was too chewy and the ricotta was lacking in flavor. Overall, I think this dish should take a hiatus to give the team time to develop a more "authentic" pizza like consistency in crust and more savory flavor profile in the "ricotta".
Now for the treats! I tried a few spoonfuls of both the PB powerhouse and OG acai bowls because, well, I had to save room for the bakery goods! Now I am a peanut butter fanatic so needless to say I was excited about the powerhouse bowl. The tartness of the acai is not lost in this and the ratio of banana, acai, almond milk and plant protein is balanced. The texture is smooth and not gritty which is a problem I've run into with other acai bowls at other establishments. The one thing I will say is this is SWEET. The bowl is topped off with banana, granola, chocolate chips (vegan) and peanut butter, which in theory sounds good, but I think adds a little too much of a sugary punch. If I order this again, I'll probably opt for just granola and peanut butter on top and nix the banana and chocolate chips.
The OG bowl was tasty and had a nice balance of flavor. The acai foundation was creamy and a bit less thick, probably due to not having protein added. The toppings of banana, strawberries, granola and unsweetened coconut had a tasteful balance and wasn't too sweet. The tartness from the acai and strawberries really helped mellow this bowl and the coconut added a nice change in texture along with the granola.
As always, saving the best for last, bakery items! At this point I was getting pretty full, so I ended up taking a bite of each and bringing the rest home. First was the avocado chocolate chip cookie. When I saw this item, I really liked the concept and was anticipating a nice chewy, moist texture. Well, I was wrong. The cookie was dry and flavorless until you chewed it a few times. This may have been a new recipe they were trying, so kudos for effort, but this is another one for the drawing board.
Next up was the blueberry walnut crumb cake. This again didn't have much flavor until chewed a few times and there weren't any "crumbs" on top so I may have labeled it more of a blueberry walnut loaf. However, the blueberries were fresh and added a pop of flavor and color.
Third was the red velvet cupcake. The one word I'd choose to describe this was dense. It did not have a cake like texture and resembled more of a fudge. The cake itself was moist, but again was lacking flavor. The frosting as well was a bit disappointing. It had a grainy texture and did not taste like cream cheese. Being a gluten and dairy free baker myself, I know it can be difficult to develop recipes that resemble their dairy and gluten full counterparts, especially on a mass scale.
Saving the best for last, were the oatmeal raisin cookie, chickpea cacao bar, cacao cookie monster cookie and the nuts & bolts bites. The oatmeal cookie was moist, flavorful and is quite literally the best oatmeal cookie I've ever had. I'm thinking about getting a few and trying to see if my parents can tell the difference (they're still riding the gluten and dairy train).
The chickpea cacao bar is really my favorite bakery item Zest has so far. It resembles a blondie and definitely has a brownie like texture. It also has a balanced sweetness with the vegan chocolate chips and almond butter base.
The cacao cookie monster again is exactly like any other gluten and dairy full counterpart. Its crisp around the edges and soft and chewy in the center. Again the almond butter base and cacao really balance the coconut sugar used to sweeten this item.
Last, but not least, the nuts & bolts bite. It looks like a mini muffin and has a crunchy mufflin like top and a soft chewy base. I love eating the base first and saving the top for last because its always the best part!
Overall, I would give Zest an 8 out of 10. The sheer amount of options that they offer for those with food allergies and intolerance is rare in this area. You can tell they take a lot of pride in the ingredients they use as well. I give them much credit for taking the time to develop gluten and dairy free recipes because it truly is an arduous task. I would also recommend this team revisit the recipes such as the chickpea pizza, avocado cookie and even some of the acai bowls and keep developing and refining them. Since my visit, I have taken and recommended this place to many friends and family members as well as some of my own clients. I think with time you will start to see multiple Zest locations in the future!