A.J. and Sunshine will uncook some raw food for you
A.J. and Sunshine will uncook some raw food for you
Steve Satterwhite

Raw: Live and Unadulterated!

I recently poked gentle fun at Granny Feelgood's for its pseudo-approach toward health food, so I guess you could file my experiences at Food Without Fire under "Better watch what you ask for because you just might get it." There is nothing phony about this "gourmet raw market & deli" (except the word "gourmet"), newly located at the Miami Yogashala yoga center in South Beach. The food, in other words, is not for everyone.

Stephen Arlin and David Wolfe are two of many well-known proponents of the raw-food diet, while Roxanne Klein is the movement's most renowned chef. Through ingenious use of cutting-edge kitchen technique at her Roxanne's restaurant in northern California, Klein conjures up wholesomely delicious, unheated meals. Food Without Fire operates on the primitive culinary plane of Arlin and Wolfe rather than in Roxanne's realm of refinement, so while the food is inarguably healthful and nutritious, whether or not it can be deemed "delicious" remains open for debate.

Can raw vegan foods ever be characterized as delicious? Only each time we bite into a ripe peach, watermelon, lychee, plum, fig, mango, cherry, tomato, carrot, avocado, radish, or spring pea (give peas a chance!) -- and whenever we eat just about any salad. So the answer is yes -- food is, by nature, delicious.

Info

Sunshine and AJ's Food Without Fire

747 4th St, Miami Beach, FL

Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Call 305-674-9960.

Yet one would be hard-pressed to use that adjective when describing the pizza or lasagna at Food Without Fire. At their best, these mimicries can only elicit the deliciousness of popular cooked foods the way a black-and-white photograph may evoke color.

And therein lies the twist -- the best foods without fire at Food Without Fire are those that don't require fire to begin with: the purple cabbage coleslaw that accompanies all sandwiches, with mashed avocado a cool, creamy substitute for mayonnaise; minced gazpacho with bright, acidic bite; nori rolls of almond paté, sprouts, purple cabbage, carrots, and avocado; "Sunshine" rolls with portobello, avocado, carrot, and parsnip "rice"; and half of an avocado mounded with crunchy, gingery, carrot-flecked, surprisingly good Thai wild rice -- which usually does call for cooking, but this is one of a few exceptions to the rule.

You can't go wrong with a salad of organic mixed greens either, or chopped blend of romaine, carrot, celery, tomato, cucumber, and red onion -- unless, that is, you choose the wrong dressing. One wouldn't expect salad dressings to be overly affected by uncookedness, but the "sweet curry" was more strangely sweet than curry, the caesar just strange and not at all caesarish (which isn't surprising, as the avocado base contains no egg, anchovies, or Parmesan). The right dressing would be a zesty and truly excellent carrot-ginger, or "10,000 Island," which is almost as good as, not ten times better than, Thousand Island.

Smoothies and shakes are likewise rewarding, my wife having already developed something of a dependency on the ultradense "chocolate" shake made with carob, frozen banana, coconut milk, and almond butter.

Repasts that do not work naturally within the context of rawness are more problematic -- like pizza, on herbed tomato flaxbread with a salsalike "marinara" sauce, almond cheese (a mocking curd), and choice of toppings (including walnut-based pepperoni). Or lasagna, wherein slices of eggplant are "cooked" to a stale-potato-chip-pliability through moisture-robbing salt marination, and layered with almond cheese, avocado, spinach, zucchini, and more of that marinara. Excepting the regrettably salty eggplant, these are attractive combinations of tastes -- but why do health food enthusiasts always feel compelled to masquerade their healthy cuisine as unhealthy cuisine? Let raw foods be raw foods -- don't humiliate by squeezing them into ill-fitting lasagna and burger outfits. Perhaps more consistently gratifying results could be obtained if energy were instead spent conjuring up the most flavorful combinations of raw, organic ingredients: heirloom tomatoes, olives, and basil; exotic vegetables with an array of amazing dips; tropical fruit salad; jicama, celery, apples, and walnuts over watercress; figs, almond cheese, and star-shaped flaxseed wafers ...

I have to admit that, as a youngster, I never envisioned a future in which I'd be eating a "Reuben" sandwich made on flaxbread with walnut jerky, alfalfa sprouts, homemade organic sauerkraut, almond cheese, and 10,000 Island dressing. Flaxbread looks like unappetizing squares of dark brown tortilla chips -- yet it's quite a tasty cracker. The jerky didn't have jerk texture, but added a vague smokiness to the mix. Altogether the worst Reuben sandwich ever -- but if unshackled from the restraints of living up to that moniker, not a bad plate of food.

If you don't care for walnuts, better skip sandwiches and head to soups, salads, and entrées, as the other half-dozen selections include a walnut-veggie burger, walnut "no-tuna" sandwich, walnut "mock chicken salad" sandwich, and a reappearance of walnut jerky in an "un-BLT." The tuna and chicken salads are bland and imminently forgettable; the burger is tasty, as is a main course of piquantly salsa-sassied corn fritters.

Ice creams and sundaes are based on frozen bananas or strawberries somewhat creamed by the whipping process in a powerful blender; as such, they will appeal mainly to those favorable to these fruits. My friend Gloria swears by the carrot muffins, but I've yet to find them in stock; my wife liked the "chocolate" (carob)-raspberry bar so much that I was able to taste but a morsel. I did get to sample the gingerbread banana pudding -- which really is "delicious."

Prices aren't as low as one might assume. Obviously the organic nuts, produce, and specialized foods used here are expensive to come by, but $5 is a bit much for a half-filled, plastic take-out container of gazpacho, as is $8 for chopped salad, and $10 for half an avocado stuffed with rice.

Sunshine Phelps & A.J. Hill are two of the four proprietors (the others are the owners of Yogashala). A.J. and Sunshine are also the "cooks," the latter more apt to be up front and dealing with the public -- which goes a long way toward explaining why A.J. is generally more sunshiny than Sunshine. (A culinary conundrum: If a raw-food regimen boosts one's energy level, which is precisely what it's supposed to do, why do the workers here move so lethargically slow? For all their vigor and enthusiasm you'd think they were being fed a diet of raw Prozac.)

Despite numerous reservations, I like Food Without Fire: pleasant space, good vibe, enough enjoyable eats. I'm not converting to a raw diet anytime soon, but integrating such foods into one's weekly menu does promote better health and provide more variety -- which, as you know, is the spice of life. Plus, it's just nice to know that when it's hot outside, and we don't feel like cooking, we can go to Food Without Fire and have them not cook for us.

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