Raw Talent 

Raw Energy's offerings aren't hot — but that's cool.

You know how sometimes you're dead set against something, blindly biased, without ever even trying it? Granted, it's usually something you would never dream of trying anyway. But sometimes this would-be monstrosity is exactly what logic — or demographics, or strangers you meet at parties — say you should love. Famous last words: You'd love this! Maybe that's why you shun it.

For me, it was raw food. Not your casual apple or salad, but raw food as a regimen, in which nothing is cooked, not even entrées, and faux versions of familiar classics are fashioned from raw ingredients: "Salmon" comprising puréed carrots, almonds, onion, lemon juice, kelp, and liquid amino acids. "Refried" "beans" comprising sprouted rye, chopped apple, chili, garlic, salt, and cumin. "Cupcakes" comprising cocoa powder, walnuts, dates, coconut oil, and salt processed and pressed into colorful fluted paper cups. "Spaghetti" and "rice" that reveal themselves, as in a nightmare, to be zucchini, slivered and chopped.

For years, I used to shudder just thinking about the raw-food movement, which is based largely on the notion that digestion-enhancing enzymes are released when raw food is chewed, but destroyed in food heated over 116 degrees, and that a cooked diet makes bodies constipated, sick, and fat. As a native Californian who turned vegetarian twenty years ago, I should welcome such ideas for more reasons than one. So why would I shudder when, after all, raw-foodism has been championed by such notables as Mel Gibson, Uma Thurman, Woody Harrelson, James Brolin, Demi Moore, and Jason Mraz? Wait, maybe that's why.

Raw food, I always thought, is what you eat while waiting for actual food, tapping your feet.

So, ordering the "pizza" at Raw Energy, I smirked. Ditto tomato "soup." Ordering nut milks, not so much, because they're meant to be consumed cold. Tofu and hummus sandwiches, on vegan (but baked) bread, are listed on the menu as "semi-cooked foods." To dip into the soup, I bought a packet of Italian Flax Crackers. Devised by owner Majid Naimi, they're made with flaxseeds, tomatoes, grapes, garlic, basil, oregano, rosemary, and thyme.

Because Raw Energy has no inside seating and just one tiny outdoor table — the food is prepared mostly to order inside a tiny kitchen and served through a window by Naimi and his wife and son — it is virtually a takeout-only operation. So I smirked all the way to the bus stop, throughout the bus ride, and while setting the table at home. But then ....

In its little paper box, the pizza looks so self-effacing. If food could shuffle its feet and avoid eye contact, this would. Naimi makes the crust by sprouting wheat berries for three days, then dehydrating them for another eighteen hours. He tops the crust with layers of avocado, alfalfa sprouts, julienned red cabbage, carrot ribbons, tahini, and vegan Parmesan "cheese." Sneakily, it releases an explosion of textures: first, snappy-crunchy, from the vegetables. Then supersoft, from the exquisitely ripe avocado. Then crumbly-comforting from the "cheese" and crust, which resembles graham-cracker crust. This barrage of surprises is still rapid-firing as the flavors register. Sweet. Earthy. Creamy. Bright. Two inches tall, this is a pizza in name only, but we'll excuse that, because it is also a revelation. It is luxuriant, its carrots and cabbage forgivable because they are so fresh and cut so small: not in-your-face crisp, like a challenge, the way produce is too often served.

How is raw tomato soup not tomato juice? It's thicker, almost thick enough to stand a spoon in. It's served slightly warm. Raw-onion shards wash up in each spoonful like pearls. Sunset-red, spunkily spiced, it sparks the thought: You can't even tell this is uncooked! To this archaic mind, that is a compliment.

The instant the cracker meets the tongue, it zings. Sprouted for one day and dehydrated for three, Naimi's crackers are crunchy on the verge of bendy, fruity on the verge of savory.

Naimi's nut milks, made with powdered walnuts and flavored with your choice of vanilla, carob, strawberry (the seeds crunch jauntily between your teeth), or orange, are drinks on the verge of entrées (because they're high-protein) and desserts. His vegetable drinks (think beets, chard, kale, celery, and parsley) and his smoothies, made with just fruit — peaches, dates, berries, and watermelon, but no frozen yogurt — are on the verge of palate cleansers.

The half-inch-high tomato slab and the mouthfuls of alfalfa sprouts in the sandwiches are extras so substantial and assertive that they verge on being main ingredients.

The raw meal that you feared would not be filling is. Is this the deal with raw food? Things on the verge of their apparent opposites? Flavors, textures, and concepts poised on cusps? A realm of slowly, daringly expanding subtleties that stun you into sitting ramrod-straight, voraciously alert? Does raw food make this happen chemically, or do we just believe it should so, when we eat raw food, it kind of does? In any case, enzymes aside, we're so accustomed to sugar, emulsifiers, processing, and cooking that we've forgotten the true flavors, colors, and textures of our favorite foods — if we even ever knew them at all.

With its dense slab of honey-sesame beancurd, the tofu sandwich verges on a burger. But the hummus sandwich verges on a rip-off, its abundant lettuce, sprouts, and tomato slice far outweighing a tasty but scanty smear of chickpea paste, spread so thin as to be a condiment. This was the only downside of several visits.

Granted, raw food can be costly. Pancake-batter thick, the nut milks look and almost taste like shakes, but because they're nutritious you can easily imagine drinking one or more a day. But because they run between $5.50 and $6 each, drinking one feels a bit like drinking liquid platinum, not just because it tastes so good but because your mind, like a cash register, rings up every sip.

And yet you want it. Beginning an orange nut milk — is there any fruit that doesn't lend itself to nuts? — I'm asking why we even require any other food. I have stopped shuddering. The joke's on me.


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