The first dish that appears is a single spring pea gnocchi dumpling perched in a Japanese soup spoon with a little cloud of horseradish foam. Next out are fried green tomatoes dressed up with black olive crackers and a pistachio dill pesto. The entrée is porcini and ricotta tortellini in a pool of spinach cream, while the finale is a black-walnut-crusted chocolate avocado mousse with a swoosh of raspberry jam.
Sounds like artful haute cuisine that relies on a slew of classic cooking techniques, but here’s the kicker: Every dish is made with only raw ingredients. Nothing was baked, boiled, sautéed, or fried. In fact, not a single item was subjected to heat above 118 degrees, which raw food devotees believe keeps the natural enzymes in produce alive.
The tortellini shells were made with micro-shaved yellow squash, the gnocco was a mash of peas, jicama, and cashews, and the crackers were dehydrated Kalamata olives and buckwheat.
This is a typical Friday night tasting menu dinner at Washington’s premier raw restaurant, Elizabeth’s Gone Raw, which is in a fashionable Federalist townhouse at the heart of downtown. It’s one of a growing number of raw restaurants that have sprouted up across the country, from Planet Raw and Leaf in Los Angeles and Thrive in Seattle to Lifefood Gourmet in Miami.
Now there are several dozen U.S. establishments that offer raw food as a major component of their menus. Usually vegetarian, if not vegan, these restaurants rely on hyper-seasonal ingredients, creative preparations, and a dash of molecular gastronomy to create dishes that often mimic traditional favorites.
New York City’s Pure Food and Wine was at the vanguard of the high-end raw food movement when it opened in New York City’s Gramercy Park neighborhood in 2004. Owner and co-founder Sarma Melngailis was first exposed to raw food a year earlier when she dined at Quintessence in Manhattan’s East Village.
The curious omnivore wasn’t so excited about the prospect of an all-raw meal when she sat down to eat, but she was almost instantly converted.
“What was most noticeable was how different I felt,” she says. “I felt really, really good, like I had just woken up. I was used to the idea that going out to dinner to really nice restaurants was a trade-off, because I’d feel heavy, sluggish, and gross afterward.”
Though she enjoyed the meal, she immediately saw how raw food prepared using a classic culinary foundation could be taken to the next level. The next summer she opened the raw restaurant Pure Food and Wine with her then-partner and chef Matthew Kenney, which quickly earned both critical kudos and a large following.
“The goal wasn’t to create a restaurant for people that already eat this way exclusively,” Melngailis says. “I wanted it be the kind of place that people who eat at other kinds of restaurants could enjoy on a regular basis.”
Melngailis believes that part of her success lies in the fact that the restaurant doesn’t simply target diners who always eat raw food. Instead, she strives to ensure that her uncooked cuisine is accessible to a wide range of customers, many of whom have never eaten a raw meal and normally have a diet that includes meat and dairy products.
Elizabeth Petty, who owns Elizabeth’s Gone Raw, is a big believer in not over-hyping the belief system that inspired the food. “My philosophy is that we don’t proselytize,” she says. “No one is judging anyone for what they eat normally.”
Photo of wild mushroom salad with fennel and sunflower sprouts courtesy of Elizabeth’s Gone Raw.