Restaurant >GREENER PASTURES
I’ll admit, the prospect of dining on uncooked food on a cold Inauguration Night didn’t exactly kick-start my salivary glands, especially considering that carpaccio and sashimi weren’t included in the raw victuals I could expect to eat. Plus I missed all the pomp from earlier in the day and wanted a bit of Obamamania’s balmy, feel-good warmth. But showing the determination of a shoe-tosser at a presidential press conference (or the determination of a writer determined to make reference to a shoe-tosser at a presidential press conference), I willed myself into action and headed to chilly Winter Park, where the city’s first “raw organics” restaurant beckoned.
Café 118º’s appellation, I quickly learned, isn’t a reflection of the dining room’s interior temperature, but rather the interior temperature of items on a menu conceived by noted New York City chef- entrepreneur Matthew Kenney. In the world of raw veganism, 118 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which nutrients in foods (fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, herbs) are believed to be diminished and enzymes destroyed, thereby making digestion more difficult.
And while digestion proved quite difficult after my meal here (it felt like I was lugging around a medicine ball in my stomach), the dishes were inventive, delicious and unpredictably filling. It’s not cheap eats by any means – raw-food dishes can be laborious to make, and go beyond any notion of peeled carrots and cucumber. An exotic and impeccably presented plate of chiles rellenos ($15), for example, featured a trio of crunchy poblano peppers filled with corn and zucchini, then layered with a fluffy macadamia-nut “ricotta cheese.” Of note were the dollops of chocolatey mole sauce made from cacao nibs.
I had to chuckle when the portobello “steak” ($17) was laid before me – the meaty ’shroom took on the appearance of a filleted tenderloin swimming in its own juices, except the juice in this case was made of raw, organic soy sauce and chili peppers. A worthy substitute for a luscious rib-eye it’s not, but top marks to chef Osaliqui Barruos for trying. The tuber in the side of South American potato salad came in the form of crisp jicama root blended with onions and creamy avocado, a splendid facsimile of the real thing. The green-hued wraps in the basil wrappers ($15) are made of young Thai coconut meat blended with spinach juice and basil, then laid on a dehydrating sheet before being stuffed with cherry tomatoes, avocados and cashew “cheese.” A refreshing nosh, to be sure (but a dipping sauce of some sort would’ve been nice).
Fresh beverages like beet and green apple juice ($5) and the strawberry “pearfection” ($6) smoothie are simply splendid. Sweet indulgences, on the other hand, were hit-and-miss. A martini glass of divine mocha pudding ($7) was an undeniable hit, textured with coconut meat and organic cacao powder, and sweetened with agave nectar and vanilla extract. The miss was a forgettable slab of mango “cheesecake” ($8) that tasted more like bitter coconut cream pie thanks to its coconut crust.
Also disappointing was our server’s lack of interest and knowledge of the menu. Given that this is the city’s first raw food restaurant, diners will inevitably have questions about ingredients and cooking methods and there’s just no reason for indolence and a reluctant attitude. Still, owner Joe Diaz deserves credit for having faith in area diners (be they vegans or otherwise) and their ability to judge value in terms of health, as opposed to quantity. Personally, I’m not entirely sold on the whole raw food movement, but after my meal at Café 118°, I am willing to talk turkey.