From the Compost Bin to the Dinner Table 

Second Life Cafe leads the way in the "ripe food" movement.

Berkeley is no stranger to cutting-edge tastes. Nowadays, anyone with a fork and a stomach can find a meatless entrée or a gluten-free canapé at one of the city's many trendy organic eateries. But for those whose taste buds have become blasé after one-too-many macrobiotic menu items, there's a new restaurant in town with an entirely new approach to eating. Second Life, a lunch and dinner restaurant that opened in March, caters to the quickly bourgeoning "ripe food" movement. Unlike raw food, which has seen a spike in popularity in recent years and is heralded for its fresh, uncooked status, ripe food has the distinction of being recycled — or, to be more accurate, composted. Take that, Café Gratitude!

The restaurant is situated in a small space (think "walk-in closet") that's tastefully adorned with recycled furniture like bicycle-seat bar stools and Styrofoam tabletops. Virtually everything in the place — from the furniture to the food — is reused.

There's a definitive air about Second Life: one punctuated by a slightly sweet, slightly sour scent. And if the cafe's perpetual out-the-door lines are any indication, Berkeleyites are eager to partake in the sensation.

The concept of eating compost might seem absurd to some, but Second Life's owner, Oscar Solaris, who claims to be the originator of the diet, is a vehement defender of the decomposed food source. "So many people write off compost as being inedible," said Solaris, "but what they don't realize is that it's actually one of the best things you can put into your body. Think about what compost does for the soil. It enriches it. Now imagine what all those enriching micro-organisms can do for your health."

Solaris, who was once an avid Dumpster diver, stumbled upon ripe foods by accident, after a fateful visit to the Trader Joe's Dumpster in Emeryville. On a hot afternoon in 2006, Solaris said, he rescued an expired salad from the store's trash bin. By the time he found it, the salad's greens were already soggy and wilted — but Solaris, adhering to the "waste not, want not" philosophy, gave it a chance.

It was a few days before Solaris indulged in his Dumpstered discovery — he had set it on the kitchen counter of the co-op where he lived before embarking on an unplanned week-long tree-sit. When he returned home, he found the salad, which by now had deteriorated into a sort of purple-y slush. Driven by hunger and disoriented from his vertical venture, he took what he says was a surprisingly satiating sip.

Solaris says he felt instantly energized by the salad, which, due to a combination of sun and sweet time, had essentially turned to compost. It wasn't long before he was snacking on the co-op's massive compost collection, and his housemates soon followed his lead.

By opening his restaurant, Solaris hopes recycled meals will catch on, both for the health benefits and environmental implications. "By eating compost, you are giving food a second life," said Solaris, explaining the meaning behind the cafe's name. "And at the same time, you're giving yourself a second chance at life, by nourishing your body to the fullest extent."

Second Life's menu is derived entirely from composted food items, which Solaris gathers from local restaurants' leftovers and from his personal pile. He also accepts donations from approved sources. And because animal products are not compostable — largely due to the unpleasant smell that accompanies their decomposition — Solaris has a strictly vegetarian menu. But vegans should be warned: Eggshells are compostable.

Menu items are served at what Solaris describes as an "optimal state of decay," the level at which compost is the most nutritionally beneficial. The food is warmed through solar energy rather than ovens, because extreme heat leads to hyperdecomposition that breaks up the compost's healthy components.

"I don't like to label my food with derogatory terms like 'rotten,' or 'expired,'" said Solaris. "I prefer to call it 'mature.' My restaurant serves up food that has been seasoned — not by salt or parsley — but by the sands of time."

First-time feasters would be wise to warm up their guts with the "humus hummus" appetizer, a fertilized take on the classic chickpea-based dip. Humus is a nutrient-filled by-product of compost, and in this context it has an earthy taste and texture that is soothing to both the tongue and the stomach. The hummus is served on salvaged crackers, which were soggy on my visit. You take what you can get.

Another tasty choice is the Second Life salad, an anonymous amalgamation of veggies lightly sprinkled with the house's "veggie-matter vinaigrette." Imagine a somewhat sludgy plate of what might once have been greens, festooned on this day with raspberries. It's hard to describe exactly what the resulting taste is, except maybe "post-fresh," or extremely, uh ... vegetal.

Second Life is the first Bay Area restaurant to offer "hooch," a crude wine made from fruit, sugar, and moldy bread. The concoction, usually reserved for production in prison cells, can now be enjoyed by the nonfelonious for just $6 a glass or $30 a bottle. The red wine mixture is made from fermented raisins and tomatoes, and has a deep, fruity taste comparable to a California Pinot Noir. With an alcohol content of 14 percent, one glass had me seeing double and ready for more compost conquests.

I filled out my meal with the house's "garden burger," a mealy patty (breadless) packed with particles of an unidentifiable origin. The burger's mouthfeel and flavor was somewhat like the aftertaste of tripping and taking in a mouthful of mulch-y earth — quite unpleasant, to say the least. I'm not sure why my palate, which earlier had given a hearty thumbs-up to humus, hooch, and soggy vegetables, decided to reject the main course. But, needless to say, this is where my adventures in compost eating were taken out with the trash.

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