Most Americans don’t have a positive association with the word “raw” in connection to food. We hear our parents’ voices echoing “raw chicken will make you sick” and “raw beef can kill you.” And our government makes it easier to buy an assault weapon than raw milk cheeses from France. So we often skip the poor crudités platter at the buffet because it seems like a neglected orphan with its pitiful raw veggies and pass it by for the allure of something hot and juicy.
Enter “raw foodist” Denise Rispoli Becknell. She opened Leafy Greens Café after a health scare pointed her toward a vegan diet, and she’s living proof that eating “raw” can do wondrous things for a person’s health. Just ask Bill Clinton. But how does the taste measure up if the idea of raw “bunny food” has you running in the other direction?
The surprisingly delicious answer? It holds up very well, indeed. This is particularly unexpected when you consider that the only hot item on the menu is tea. But the organic tea selection is splendid and wide-ranging. The list includes young, delicate green teas, traditional black teas, herbal teas in a variety of fruit and spice flavors, and rooibos (pronounced “roy-boss”), delicious African red bush teas.
If you opt for iced tea, your server brings an imported gravity drip tea infuser with a large clear steeping chamber. When the loose tea and boiling water reach the peak of flavor, simply place the infuser over a glass of ice and the automatic flow system starts. When the glass is full, just remove the infuser and the flow stops instantly. Since the chamber has a 16-ounce capacity, instant refills are at your fingertips. Iced tea has never been so much fun.
If you prefer fresh squeezed juice or smoothies, Leafy Greens has you covered. Generous portions of apple or carrot juice (with or without ginger) are impeccable. As are the smoothies; my favorite is “bunny love,” a delicious mix of frozen bananas, carrot juice, ginger and spices — with the cinnamon really putting your taste buds on notice.
Leafy Greens offers two flavorful cold soups. Pineapple-cucumber gazpacho features chunks of sweet golden fruit and crisp English cucumber surrounded by a refreshing puree of pineapple, cucumber, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, and macadamia nut oil flavored with a touch of cilantro, jalapeno pepper, and sea salt, and garnished with macadamia nuts chunks. On the spicier side is Thai curry soup with a flavorful mix of young Thai coconuts, lime juice, ginger for zip, and arresting curry spices. Diced avocado, red bell pepper, and zucchini add contrasting textures, and thinly shredded jicama, daikon and pea sprouts complete this delightful bowl. Both soups are worthy of your attention.
The restaurant offers four entrée salads, but these aren’t too different from what you might encounter at a traditional eatery. So my table takes the plunge and opts to go “hard core” vegan.
The tacos feature large, crisp romaine leaves spread with cashew hummus and luscious guacamole, then topped with raw walnut taco “meat,” shredded green and red cabbage, red bell pepper, carrots, grape tomatoes and red onion. Chipotle cashew dressing gives an authentic Mexican zing that brings it all together into a tasty whole. You may miss the crunch and corn of a taco shell, but there is taste to spare.
Leafy Greens takes full advantage of a technique that’s become one hallmark of modernist cuisine — dehydration. The crisp "crust" on the Mediterranean pizza is made by dehydrating ground walnuts and hempseed, then spreading it with cashew hummus and fresh olive tapenade topped with sliced olives, shredded fennel, cubes of English cucumber and grape tomato wedges. There’s so much flavor, you barely miss chomping on pizza dough.
The dehydrated veggie burger is a patty made from portobello mushrooms, walnuts, sunflower seeds, red onion and nama shoyu (unpasteurized soy sauce) that looks just like grilled beef and has plenty of tasty chew. In fact, I was surprised that it contains no grain. The plate is beautiful. It arrives with sliced tomatoes, sprouts, guacamole, raw homemade ketchup and mustard, all designed to be piled on the burger, and crunchy cucumber slices garnished with sliced baby orange peppers and a yummy, creamy chipotle sauce. Huge romaine slices take the place of the typical bun. You might not forget your favorite burger, but there is plenty to savor.
For dessert, choose between “cheesecake” and fresh fruit cobbler. In either case, the “crust” is a molded coconut and walnut shell that’s filled with fresh berries or with raw hazelnut cashew “cheesecake” filling with the texture of mashed banana. Add chocolate and strawberry sauce with a strawberry rose garnish and you’ll barely know that this is a healthy treat.
From the intimate dining room with the chef’s head visible over the room divider to the ’60s soundtrack of the Beatles, Hendrix and Dylan, Leafy Greens is full of surprises. Nicest of all is the BYOB policy. The restaurant can’t sell wine, but you’re encouraged to bring your own with no corkage fee. So grab a bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and take a stab at eating your vegetables. As the bottom of the check proclaims, “Live Long … Eat Raw!!!”