Saturday, May 26, 2007

Dining in the Raw

One-thousand years from now, archeologists digging on the island of Manhattan will debate the reasons why a group of sophisticated, urban city-dwellers chose to reject traditional kitchen technology and abandoned the use of the four-burner stove.

My friend “Lee Sloan” is a Grande Dame of food and wine on the New York circuit. In days of yore, she developed marketing and public relations strategies for food companies and producer associations. Lee made Louisiana Yams yummy and pickles and pasta sexy. She also knows a lot about fine wine and good taste.

Lee is my guide to gastronomy, my doyenne of the delicious. But now and again, I relish the opportunity to rock her world – just a little – and expose her to some radical new food concepts. It is a journey she willingly embraces.

“So, what do you say we check out this raw food movement?” I suggest.

“You know I don’t eat raw meat or fish,” she replies tersely. It’s almost an implied threat.

“I think it’s all about fruits, vegetables and seeds,” I answer timidly.

Now, I’m inherently lazy. I’ll find any excuse not to cook. But, I’m not sure I truly understand this raw food concept. Does raw food really qualify as cuisine? Have you joined the raw food movement when you have a peanut butter sandwich for dinner?

Not so much.

The term raw food describes uncooked, unprocessed and often organic foods that have not been heated above 118 degrees Fahrenheit. The movement, uh, “heated up” during the 1900s and true enthusiasts believe that the consumption of raw foods is more healthful and preserves essential vitamins and nutrients.

It sounds like I’m going to have to cut back on my recent cake binging, but I think I’m up to the challenge. Fortunately, Lee requires minimal coercing and we make reservations at Manhattan’s leading raw food restaurant, Pure Food and Wine at 54 Irving Place. However, an alarming editorial in the morning edition of the New York Times called “Death by Veganism” has given Lee a moment of pause.

A couple of hours before dinner I have a moment of panic, as well. I email Lee and frantically ask, “What about the wine? Will it be any good?” I’ve barely mastered the art of pairing wine with meat and fish. What kind of wine goes best with sprouts? Lee tells me to calm down and to keep reminding myself it is all part of the adventure.

It is a balmy spring evening in New York when I arrive at Pure Food and Wine. Lee is waiting for me outside the restaurant and she’s already got her hands on the wine list. “I think we’ll be okay,” she says with a smile.

We are led to an enchanting outdoor garden of wood decking, red cushions and camp chairs. White votive candles line the slate stone path to our table. All we need is a roaring camp fire and some s'mores and it will be a perfect evening under the stars.

Oh, no … fire is wrong!

I get a closer look at the wine list and I am relieved. All of the selections are organic or sustainable wines. I make a mental note to investigate what “sustainable wine” is all about, and we order two glasses of bubbly, organic Cava. We review the menu and speculate on what the meal will be like. “When you think raw, you think boring,” Lee murmurs with a slight touch of skepticism in her voice, and I point out that these are certainly cooked food prices.

Our server, Cesar is a tall, lanky young man with a mop of sandy curls. As is her style, Lee begins to interrogate the unsuspecting Cesar on the finer points of raw food. What is it really, and how is it different from vegan food?

Cesar is unflappable. He’s clearly navigated this territory before and boils it down to one concise statement: “If you eat raw, you’re kind of a vegan by default.” He does concede that raw food is about a preparation style, while vegan is a philosophy, but advises us that there is no wheat or starch in the menu – only “simulated starch” which is likely to be created from pureed raw nuts. Cesar tells us that this is the only raw food restaurant in Manhattan committed to a fine dining experience (hence the cooked food prices) and artisanal ingredients, many sourced from the nearby Union Square Greenmarket. But, aside from the ingredients, tradition – in the culinary sence – is an anathema at Pure Food and Wine. “There is no old guy wielding the bludgeon of tradition in the kitchen,” says Cesar. “These are young, visionary kids.” The Chef de Cuisine is 25 years old.

Lee and I order the chef’s tasting menu, and she sits back to survey the crowd, noting that it is a mix of suits and earthier types. A different server brings our first course to the table and announces, “This is your Gestapo.” Just behind him, Cesar makes a correction. It is, in fact Gazpacho – consisting of pureed mango, radish and avocado, served in a martini glass. “This is your amuse bouche,” he tells Lee, who promptly retorts, “The French would find that amusing.” But the golden potion manages to do the intended job, and is full of pepper, crunch and a smooth, subtle sweetness.

From there on, dinner becomes a bit like all-you-can-eat buffet night in the Garden of Eden. For each course we are both presented with a different dish so we can share. We take note of several characteristics of raw food. First, it is incredibly fresh and, well, green. Everything has a fresh, clean and crisp taste. Oddly enough, there is very little of the aroma that you would typically get with hot food, so the sense of smell seems to have taken the night off. The taste buds and the teeth are doing all the work.

Lee reflects on the dramatic difference between this and how she was brought up. “We were Kosher, so everything was cooked and cooked.”

We then take note that the alcohol absorption rate of raw food is far less than a diet high in fat and protein. Our second round of drinks – an herbaceous, sustainable Sancerre from France – has gone directly to our heads. I’m definitely feeling a buzz, and through the haze of it all consider that the pairing of raw food and wine may be an art that has yet to be developed. You need a strong wine to stand up to those raw vegetables.

The color palate of the dishes brought to our table is brilliant. There is intense visual appeal. Not exactly eye candy, but definitely eye veggies. An avocado soup is the color of sea foam. Emerald-green Spicy Thai Lettuce Wraps with mahogany-colored Tamarind Chile Sauce, pea shoots, mango and cabbage are artfully arranged. Sweet maize corn, red peppers, snap peas and fat morel mushrooms marinated in balsamic vinegar looks like a mountain of festive confetti. A white corn tamale is bursting with a rich, nutty filling. Red cabbage is the color of rubies and is so tangy my eyes water. Prior to dessert, a palate cleanser of Lime Ice is pucker-tart and refreshing. We agree that it is a garden of earthly delights and Lee may indeed be a convert. “I’m astonished at the creativity and the fact that it can be so appealing,” she raves.

We encounter a slight speed bump before dessert. Lee – an avowed caffeine addict – realizes, “My guess is they’re not going to have coffee,” and Cesar confirms that hot coffee would break all the raw food rules. “The Europeans go crazy when they find out,” he confides. But the delectable desserts more than compensate. Chocolate Molten Lava Cake with mocha mousse, chocolate sauce and vanilla pink peppercorn ice cream is richly decadent, and Passion Fruit Mousse with lime cream, pineapple coconut sorbet is layer-after-layer of frothy citrus sensations. We leave feeling pleasantly full and just a tad virtuous, although Lee wonders if she will end up raiding the larder for a cheese and cracker snack later in the evening.

Just before I board the train for Long Island, I stop at the newsstand and scan the headlines on the latest issue of Gourmet Magazine. A line of type along the bottom of the cover screams – Investigative Report: A Chicken’s Life. Yikes!! Instead, I pick up Everyday Food for the ride home which promises Fast, Favorite No-Cook Dinners.

I suppose I can always use my oven to store sweaters …

© 2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved


veron said...

hmmn ...very interesting. I don't think I'll be sold on raw food just yet. The aroma of the food is what sets of the appetite in the first place.

The TriniGourmet said...

would you go again? :) I've been meaning to pick up a raw food book for the longest while.

Lydia said...

Fabulous post! I admit that the "novelty" of raw food appeals to me, but I doubt I'll be adopting it as a lifestyle any time soon. Thank you also for enjoying your meal without photographing every dish that was served to you. Although I'm curious when people write about their restaurant experiences, the image of trying to enjoy a meal while looking at each dish through the lens of a camera is...well...unappetizing. I'd rather read a description that paints a picture.

Jann said...

This was quite an experience~eye veggies, wine lists of unusuals~really young people as experts~I like this place! I
looked up the market at the square-emailed my daughter all the info-thanks for sharing. You have such great flamboyance in this post~

T.W. Barritt said...

Veron - Give it a try -- you might enjoy the experience.

Sarina - I would go again. There were other entrees that sounded intriquing. The owner of the restaurant is named Sarma Melngailis and she has a book called "Raw Food/Real World."

Lydia - Thanks! I appreciate your comments regarding photos. I've thought a lot about that and decided when I'm in a restaurant, I'm going to let my words tell the story so I can really focus on the food.

Jann - you should try it on your next visit to NY!

Freya and Paul said...

So interesting! I'm still chuckling over the gestapo faux pas - you probably wondered what on earth you were being served at first...
Definitely a must for all serious 'foodies' or 'culinary types' to try!

Terry B said...

A very entertaining post. And thank you for exploring raw food so I don't have to. I have to admit, I am suspicious of any cuisine that so limits choices.

Kova said...

I loved reading this post - I live in Boston but have fantasized about taking a day trip down to Pure Food and Wine. I have the cookbook Raw Food/Real World and love it! The cucumber pineapple gazpacho is amazing!