If vegans are a "Hezbollah-like splinter faction" of the vegetarian movement, as Anthony Bourdain once wrote, then raw foodists would be that group's loopiest fringe. Like vegans, they don't eat products derived from animals, but they also shun chemically processed or pasteurized ingredients — and of course abide by the rather radical notion of never cooking anything. Raw foodists tend to wax enthusiastically about renewed vigor like those frisky folks on antidepressant commercials. The difference is that a diet of raw foods is a lot healthier than drugs, and is in fact a naturally effective way of adding more pep to your step. All too often, however, the taste of these uncooked concoctions turns out to be a bitter pill to swallow.
This needn't be so. Think a slice of ice-cold watermelon, a bursting ripe strawberry, a juicy grapefruit, or a succulent plum. Crisp greens with sweet heirloom tomatoes; shaved fennel with lemon juice; green mango with basil and lime; salad with sumptuous avocado or sweet red pepper or peppery radishes. A cup of cool cucumber-dill soup. Gazpacho. Nuts! And on and on, a global garden of sweet/spicy/savory tastes and soft/crunchy textures to tinker with. So why is it that raw food restaurateurs so often feel compelled to serve uncooked mimicries of items such as lasagna, hamburgers, and quiche? It's enough of a challenge attempting to create faux meat dishes using vegetarian ingredients — more often than not, diners end up feeling as though they're the ones being mocked. Take away the element of heat and it becomes something of a double mockery. Establishments that attempt such mimicries would do better having a rabbit write up the menu.
The Art of Food is such a place. The restaurant, which recently sprouted on North Miami Avenue in midtown, is located in a sprawling cooperative showroom of clothing, jewelry, and art. Vegan and raw foods are served from a display case up front. A seven-seat counter extends from the case, behind which foods are plated and sandwiches, salads, and smoothies are prepared. That's that: a raw but functional décor.
Coproprietor Sheryn Abalos, former owner of Naked Earth in Miami Beach, prefers the term live to raw — as in "fresh, organic, live, and natural cuisine." Some of the ingredients do get exposed to heat, but always below 118 degrees in order to preserve enzymes and nutrients. Given heat treatment or not, beet, kale, and eggplant are not vegetables that come to mind as being especially pleasing when eaten uncooked. Yet the first two are served as side dishes and the last is used along with zucchini to layer a lasagna that also features a light, zesty red sauce and chewy ricottalike "cheese" culled from Brazil nuts. The eggplant proved predictably acrid, and raw zucchini likewise had limited appeal. The ridged slices of beet came dotted with edamame and flecked with black sesame seeds, but were tough and dry. Kale was better, but marred by large chunks of garlic that brought to mind an old New York proverb: A nickel will get you on the subway, but garlic will get you a seat.
Tempeh with mushroom sauce didn't provide much color on the canvas, yet the soft, rectangular patty was as moist as this fermented soybean product gets. The mushroom sauce was good too, but flimsy plastic forks could hardly pierce the carrots on top, nor do said utensils jibe with the co-op's stated mission touting "eco-friendliness" and use of "biodegradable goods." The rest of the paper materials, however, are in harmony with such claims.
Counter workers are knowledgeable about the food, and happy to reveal the ingredients that go into making them. "Salmon," they offer, is prepared with Brazil nuts, almonds, carrots, and beets. I passed, attempting instead to sate my seafood appetite with a vegan "save the tuna" sandwich wrapped in a cracked wheat tortilla; seasoned with sesame, wakame, and miso; and padded with alfalfa sprouts and a tomato slice. The main component — a medley of nuts, seeds, and whatnot — tasted a little like falafel mix, but it was better than it sounds.
The live "hamburger" loosely simulates the look of beef tartare and possesses a somewhat similar texture. Yet when the round patty is sandwiched in stiff spelt bread with sprouts and pulpy tomatoes, whatever burger taste it might have had don't come through. You'd think having to employ so few cooks would help keep prices low, but the burger is $14. That's a lot, even if it is accompanied by salad greens. Main courses cost about the same and come with salad or a steamed grain such as quinoa. Add a smoothie ($6 to $7), side ($6), or dessert ($3 to $8), and these prices add up to more than most folks probably want to pay for lunch.
An extensive variety of fantastic smoothies includes The Green Supreme: a sweet, revitalizing blend of banana, strawberries, mango, nut milk, agave, and spirulina. Fresh fruit juices, herbal teas, and soy milk-foamed cappuccinos hit the spot as well. And desserts by co-owner Barclay (a one-name personality, like Bono), who also runs Blu Dog Bakery in Miami, are nothing short of sensational. You'd never suspect that the gooey chocolate cupcake with white frosting; the tall, soft wedge of coconut cake; and the giant chocolate chip cookie were vegan — and thus lacking butter, eggs, and refined sugar and flour.
There is an art to creating delicious baked goods without such ingredients, as there is an art to creating any great food. Yet the culinary world's practitioners, no matter how talented, are more akin to craftsmen; cuisine, like those ornate handmade candles sold at street fairs, can be savored only within the duration of its utility. However you wish to categorize cooking — or noncooking, in this case — it seems that The Art of Food needs practice.
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