When is pad thai a salad, and a burrito not a burrito?
When you're eating at Cafe Muse, the newest incarnation of the Berkeley Art Museum's cafe. The space has a long history of culinary invention, since it spent much of its early years as the Swallow, the cooperative restaurant that launched Ruth Reichl's culinary career. Cafe Muse has augmented a normal lunchtime menu -- Berkeley style, using sustainably grown vegetables and humanely raised meat -- with a short list of raw-foods dishes such as sushi, lasagne, and pad thai. All printed without quotes.
Under the direction of owner Daryl Ross and chef Brian Beach, who also run two health-conscious cafes on the UC Berkeley campus, the three-year-old Muse went raw in December. It's actually a bit surprising that it's taken so long for the East Bay to get its own raw (or "living") foods restaurant. The diet has been capturing the imagination of Northern Californian vegetarians for almost a decade.
For those of you not in the know, raw-foods practitioners don't just advocate a vegan diet, they refuse to heat any ingredient above 118° Fahrenheit. As the authors of the Living Foods Web site (Living-Foods.com), an online resource for raw-foodies, explain, "Enzymes begin to be destroyed at 102°F and are completely destroyed by 126°F. All cooked food is devoid of enzymes; furthermore, cooking food changes the molecular structure of the food and renders it toxic. Living and raw foods also have enormously higher nutrient values than the foods that have been cooked." In her new cookbook, Roxanne Klein, creator of the much-heralded Roxanne's raw-foods restaurant in Larkspur, explains that she and her husband switched to raw foods after Woody Harrelson convinced them to try it in Thailand. The added energy they gained from giving up the oven made converts out of them.
But Cafe Muse isn't about achieving that level of purity. Though its raw entrées are the most interesting items on the menu, you can also get a high-quality chicken sandwich without fear of being tackled by legions of wild-eyed PETA-philes. And at student-friendly prices, Muse's raw dishes are definitely worth a try.
Stepping out of the student free-for-all of Bancroft Way onto the paths that wind around the museum to get to the sanctuary of Cafe Muse feels like a sigh of relief, especially on a sunny afternoon. From the outside, the cafe looks like a cave hollowed out of a cement cliff, but once you're inside looking out, all you notice are the placid sculpture gardens outside. Bright light flows through the solid bank of windows and reflects off a wide swath of tangerine at the back wall. The atmosphere of reverence oozes out of the galleries and into the cafe.
As Cafe Muse's bare-bones kitchen attests, you don't need much equipment to make raw foods. In her cookbook Klein recommends a high-speed blender, heavy-duty juicer, dehydrator, and food grinder.
The lasagna, for example, layered shaved zucchini, marinated portobello mushrooms, and radicchio with a thick smear of slightly grainy, sweet "ricotta," finely pureed, soaked cashews. But the element that made the dish was the dried-tomato sauce spooned around the plate: The un-cooks let the tomatoes lie out in the sun until most of the moisture evaporated, concentrating the fruit's flavors -- pureed, the dried-fruit sauce tasted like a very good tomato paste. Kalamata olives gave it an extra jolt of flavor.
One guess what the raw-food soup is: Yep, gazpacho. Actually, Cafe Muse's gazpacho, whose recipe needed no alteration to fit the rules of the diet, turned out to be the weakest dish. Though it looked like the real thing, chunkily pureed and flecked with green, our soup just tasted like tomatoes and cucumbers whizzed up with a little parsley. It needed more garlic, more lemon juice, and perhaps some of that sun-dried tomato sauce to punch up the flavor.
Even when marinated in citrus juice, raw foods end up tasting a bit sweet. This was especially true of the pad thai, in which slices of young coconut had the succulently slippery texture of cooked rice noodles. But the rest of the salad -- peanuts, cabbage, red peppers, and huge slices of green onion in a halfhearted tamarind dressing -- needed more sass. Something, for example, like the gutsy chile-spiked red miso dipping sauce that came with Muse's vegetable sushi. (Fermented soybean paste, or miso, counts as living food.) The sauce lit up the colorful, crunchy assemblage of cucumber, jicama, sprouts, red pepper, avocado, and lettuce that filled the nori-wrapped rolls.
A Southwestern vegetable wrap was equally flavorful, if messy to eat. Instead of a tortilla, the cooks loosely folded a big leaf of green-leaf lettuce around more chopped lettuce -- tell me this isn't a salad -- avocado slices, a straight-up salsa fresca, and a big dollop of cumin-y "refritos," actually a puree of soaked raw pumpkin seeds and dried chiles. A looser version of the cashew ricotta, tasting an awful lot like sour cream, was drizzled over the top.
From the cooked side of the menu came a very good rendition of Chinese chicken salad, in which lettuce, shredded cabbage, scallions, and chopped peanuts were tossed in a sweet-tart rice-wine vinaigrette. A ring of grilled chicken breast slices contained the veggies and gave them some heft. Sandwiches like the Fulton Valley Farms chicken-breast club come with vinegar-marinated red onions and a sweet-sour pickle: fresh meat, fresh bread, fresh flavors. Muse's Reuben -- Niman Ranch pastrami, sauerkraut, pickled onions, and melted swiss on a baguette -- also was a fine sandwich, but about three thousand calories short of the griddle-fried original. Turn my lasagna into a salad, fine, but mess with my Reuben? I can't get behind that.
With the food Cafe Muse serves coffee drinks, organic wine, beer, and a hip fermented-tea drink called kombucha. Snackers or three-course lunchers can end their meal with artisanal cakes and plastic-wrapped cookies and brownies, which like most cafe sweets, vary from just-baked to dry. I picked up a pack of live lemon-honey swirl cookies -- primarily lemon juice, coconut, ground cashews, and honey -- so-called because they're dehydrated, not baked.
What's missing from raw foods is umami -- a sensation of meatiness or fullness sometimes defined as the fifth taste -- that we primarily get from cooked mushrooms, meat, cheese, eggs, and MSG. But I left the cafe refreshed, intrigued, and moderately full. Better still, at two o'clock I didn't find myself collapsing for a post-carb nap.
Whether you think the raw-foods diet is bunkum or the health food of the future -- to me, it's a great excuse for some creative vegetable wrangling -- there's no doubt that Cafe Muse is a prime lunch spot for Cal students and staff. Sitting on the patio on a sunny day with a latte and a salad is enough to make you feel glad to be alive. Even if your food is, too.
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