By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
Nothing is more frustrating for a fledgling gourmand than to be cut down in his or her prime by food allergies. The other night I arranged to meet two companions, a man and a woman, both of whom adore dining. The difficulty lay in choosing a restaurant. The man is highly allergic to eggs, dairy products, peanuts, and bananas; the woman can't eat anything made with wheat or sugar. Whatever spirit possessed me to entertain them simultaneously, it certainly didn't have a prodigious appetite. Unless we wanted our evening to include a trip to Jackson Memorial, our possibilities appeared to be limited.
In truth, though, I'm familiar with systemic reactions to foods. My sister, throughout her formative years, suffered a severe dairy-and-egg allergy. She became the only child among her friends to serve apple pie instead of cake at her birthday parties (typical pie crust contains no eggs). Naturally she was never happy about being cast as an oddball. Other friends of mine suffering from such maladies often feel similarly excluded, even as adults, and especially when dining out.
Most restaurants unwittingly discriminate against diners with special needs simply by not offering enough alternatives. And I'm uncomfortable downing fettuccine Alfredo in front of a man whose only choice is spaghetti marinara, or savoring chocolate cake in the presence of a woman whose dessert is restricted to black coffee. The guilt has nothing to do with the calories. It's the yearning in their faces I can't stand to see.
One option is to prepare dinner at home. But to many of us this is no option at all; dining out ranks among our most important social interactions. We communicate with each other through discussion of menu items; we show our trust by sharing dishes; we chat as we eat; we release aggressions by fighting over the bill. Through food we make contact. I knew a Californian who, when he discovered he could no longer tolerate sodium, made salt-free dinner dates at his house. His girlfriend eventually ditched him for a junk-food addict.
Health food restaurants are a logical solution. Those afflicted with allergies, digestive diseases, hypertension, and other diet-affected illnesses are welcomed at such places. Forget the refugee's first sight of the Freedom Tower; true liberation is feeling free to eat almost any item on the menu.
The number of health food restaurants in Miami is like a single drop of cream in a bechamel sauce: barely significant. But with the recent addition of Coconut Grove's Oak Feed Natural Foods Restaurant, finding a square seitan-and-tofu meal is, if not incredibly enticing, at least a little easier. Although a long-time staple for those seeking healthy groceries, Oak Feed only added the restaurant in March.
For the average Big Mac-and-fries consumer, Oak Feed can be an alien experience. An indoor/outdoor cafe on Grand Avenue, the restaurant is connected to the natural foods market that has been a Grove staple for many years. More so than the menu, it's the clientele that may seem unusual A the local chapter of the Hare Krishna frequents Oak Feed, as do the bald or bearded others of cultish or philosophical bent. All in the grand tradition of self-consciously "healthy" dining establishments, where the freaks meet to eat.
And the staff, judging from their enthusiasm for soy-based "cream" sauces and the inner goodness of wheat kernels, seem as likely to experience a metaphysical epiphany merely smelling the earthy servings as any customer would eating them.
But the menu here is ambitious, neatly overstepping the patchouli-and-Birkenstock stereotype so many of us cherish like Grateful Dead bootlegs. Influenced heavily by a gourmet interpretation of Japanese and other Eastern cuisines, the dinner menu abandons the typical soy cheese pizza, tofu stir fry, and seven-grain burger one expects to find (although a seasoned "wheatmeat" burger with caramelized onions is available for lunch). It seems that Sixties' flavors have taken, in the Nineties, a trippy turn to nouvelle cuisine.
At first glance the selections read like any other creative bistro's fare. Items such as the salmon carpaccio appetizer and the entree of rotini with smoked trout, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh dill, and oil-cured black olives could be Grove-universal specialties. Until you realize that the cream sauce in which the rotini is served is completely nondairy, as is the entire menu.
The nod to nouvelle, however, wasn't enough to allow me to forget where, and what, I was eating. The name Oak Feed has always meant horses to me. It sounds like a hitching post, where bags of oats might be strapped onto our obedient chins, and we munch the bland grains until someone takes them away. This image was only reinforced by my fava bean pƒte starter, a tasteless grind of fleshy beans accented by an occasional pistachio nut and a nugget of roasted red pepper. Supposedly bourbon-scented, I found this dish to be a rough approximation of the acorn patties I used to "bake" in the back yard of my childhood. Nor was it helped by the gelatinous slivers of vegetable aspic that accompanied it, a jellyfish-colored condiment so deficient in flavor I questioned its purpose on the plate. But another condiment, dill-cured pickled onion, was a success, lending a tease of vinegar to the staid legume mash.