Monday, February 28, 2011

Raw Raw Riot

I love a big juicy slab o' beef between buns as much as the next Padma, even if I don't necessarily love the burger, if you know what I mean. That said, I would be one saddened carnivore if I could never drag my knuckles again into Santa Barbara's Paradise Cafe or Los Angeles's Father's Office or San Diego's The Neighborhood ever again and not be able to devour a burger.

Still, man does not live by meat alone. Plus, I like to be open-minded, or make that open-stomached, and be willing to try all sorts of foods and preparations. So, last weekend we were at 118 Degrees in Costa Mesa for dinner. Their menu puts it like this: "118 Degrees is the commonly accepted temperature at which the natural enzyme value and nutritional contents of raw plant foods begin to break down and become useless for the body. One benefit of eating raw food is the energy derived from the enzymes and phyto nutrients available in foods that are still living!"I figure, thems phyto words*--let's see what you've got, 118 Degrees!

You have to grant raw food chefs some ground, after all, as they're willing to give up on really enticing us with scent when they cook. Sure, basil is basil raw even to our noses, but so many foods don't really let their oils loose until heated a bit (put some corriander or cumin seeds in a warmed pan and you'll see, or smell, as the case may be), so that makes the job much harder. That might be one reason raw food is often plated within an inch of its life (if that isn't an oxymoron)--these dishes seem to try to entice the eye even more than a "regular" plate of food. (Yes, I realize I'm writing from the possibly fake dominant notion that food should be cooked to be food.)

It also means dishes are rarely simple. Raw chefs often try to re-create flavors we're used to eating cooked, so there are nut cheeses, julienned zucchini masquerading as pasta,  and so on. Which means, actually, the layers of flavoring tend to be extravagant, in a way, and richer than one might imagine when there's no dairy in there. We started with the 118 Bristol (the restaurant is on Bristol Avenue) Sliders  featuring marinated portobello mushrooms where you might imagine meat might be, tomato, spinach, garlic crème sauce and basil aioli on a buckwheat bun. It was sloppy goodness, the mushroom almost as yummy as a grilled one as the marinating broke it down a bit. For a main we shared the Seasonal Platter of Heirloom Tomato and Asparagus Tapas Salad, Crepe 360, and Butternut Ravioli. That doesn't really sound like something you couldn't eat anywhere, does it? And that's the trick.

While the tomatoes weren't quite peak yet--no surprise in a cold February--they melded well with the thinly sliced on the bias asparagus. That crepe was yummy, and that's no surprise, for here's the vegetable truck dumped into it: marinated mushroom mix, pesto aioli, avocado, sweet peppers, chard ribbons and shaved asparagus, inside sprouted grain and flax crepe shell. That's then topped with sun-dried tomato crème sauce--they're serious about their blenders, of course, and that sundried trick simply adds depth of flavor without heat [no offense, sun])--and olive carmelata.

Since we'd been so virtuous it was even easier to have dessert, so we shared the sampler there, too, figuring the more tastes the better. The coconut macaroons were crunchy (not really gooey) and flavorful; the chocolate ganache deeply rich and best as a bite or two (yeah, sampler), and then an apple cobbler as good as a baked one (even if this one was probably a cashew-date crust, and how bad could that be?).

Beware, though, as a place like this ends up more expensive than you might think. Sure, you're not covering the cost for foie gras or Kobe beef or even diver scallops. But nuts cost, and there's lots of them in vegan and raw food (there's milk in them nuts!). So don't expect to get out cheap. But do expect to get out happy.

Oh, of all things it's in a mall, but a mall unlike most as it aims for the upscale post-hippie crowd--bike stores, air plants and art sold out of an Airstream, even more vegetarian cuisine. The Camp, it's called, and heck, if you have to go buy things, why not a green place like this.

*Phytonutrients are those elements we know are good for us but we just don't know how good--some people want to say they slay cancer, etc., while others say, "sure they help, but don't put all your cuisine choices in one phyto basket."

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