In the Raw

A simple restaurant takes food back to its roots.

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click to enlarge SOY GOOD: The classic burger's cousin, the soy burger, is served up with veggie bacon and ketchup. - Valerie Troyano
Valerie Troyano
SOY GOOD: The classic burger's cousin, the soy burger, is served up with veggie bacon and ketchup.

Grass Root is a special place. It's not much to look at — just a few tables and hotel banquet chairs, African-themed tchochkes and gewgaws for sale, walls painted with an earthy terra-cotta and covered in Ethiopian travel posters. The lack of air conditioning makes whirring oscillating fans necessary, and, let's be honest here, the food — besides one of the best miso soups around — doesn't even compete with most Bay area eateries.

That's the rub, though. Grass Root isn't trying to compete. It's catering to disenfranchised diners, culinary pariahs, the kind of people who can't or won't visit those other restaurants.

With supermarkets stocked with tens of thousands of items from across the world, and restaurants ranging from posh to nosh, considering the spiritual effects of our food choices can be paralyzing. Most of us don't bother, blithely stuffing our faces and hoping for minimal karmic impact.

Some folks take a more active role, but that comes with its own problems. In Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain said, "vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter-faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn." Chefs like to have the entire spectrum of nature available for their culinary endeavors. Vegetarians don't rate.

That leaves vegetarians with just a dozen or so places around town that will cater to their needs. Or they end up piling on the salad or pasta at a "regular" restaurant. Vegans have a tougher time, with a meager handful of places that devote menu space to that specific dietary lifestyle.

Nowadays, there's an even stricter sect of eaters — the raw foodists. You might not know anyone who eats raw because they don't get out much. Where would they go? Consuming only natural (non-animal) foods that have never been subjected to temperatures greater than 116 degrees means the most basic building blocks of a restaurant's repertoire are taboo. With Tampa dining entrepreneurs still avoiding vegetarians, raw-foody joints are decades away, if they ever appear.

Except for Grass Root. Half the menu is geared toward these raw eaters, and the owners conduct classes in raw cooking. Some of the dishes are straightforward, like a salad of chopped veggies and punchy seaweed dressed with simple mirin vinaigrette ($7); rich cashew hummus, avocado and more chopped veggies wrapped in crisp lettuce, with a sprinkling of fresh rosemary ($8); "sushi" of sprouts, carrots and grapefruit snugly wrapped in nori ($7).

Compared to some of the bizarre raw constructions I've been confronted with — "salmon pate" made from carrots and almonds? — Grass Root's fare is simple and satisfying stuff that doesn't push the paradigm past its logical limits.

Until you get to the miso soup ($8), a dish that can teach a conventional chef a thing or two. Dip a spoon into the murky pool of subtly sweet coconut water (yep, straight from the hairy nut) and miso paste blossoms, filling the bowl with a cloud of nutty, salty seasoning. Floating atop the soup are strands of shredded coconut "noodles" that are tender enough to mimic the real deal. It's cold, which turns off some of my friends, but they're ignorant philistines. The low temp just heightens the fresh and natural flavors.

Think you can peg the clientele at Grass Root? Owner Spencer Sterling looks the part, I guess — a white dude with profuse dreads and a thick, wiry black beard. But next to us sits a middle income, middle-aged couple. Over there is a table of four older women, most of them overweight, who look like they've come to Grass Root straight from an insurance office.

Most of my crew is devout omnivores, but everyone is excited to see what an animal-free lifestyle restaurant is all about. I fortify them with a few glasses of Grass Root's juice blends, like the creamy bluegrass ($7), with its bananas, blueberries and almond milk; or the bachelor ($6), a heavy blend of a half-dozen new age dietary supplements, like bee pollen and flax seed; as well as the popular mango-ra ($6). That last is the sweetest of the bunch and the only one that hits the table ice cold.

Service at Grass Root — while pleasant — is casual. Food stutters out of the kitchen every time chef Sabrina, Spencer's partner and wife, finishes a dish. I mean that as a small criticism, but I doubt they would see it that way. Think of Grass Root as a notch above hanging out at the neighbor's for dinner. That's the vibe they are going for.

Some vegan dishes match that vibe — 1960s picnic food re-imagined with less cruelty and more faux. Like creamy macaroni salad ($6) that tastes like my mom's, although she never used almonds and seaweed to make the mayo-like dressing. Classic textured soy protein burgers ($5) are covered in ketchup and tasty veggie bacon that shows you exactly how far a dose of liquid smoke will take you. Pretty far, actually.

I've always felt that imitation foods are a poor choice for the veg crowd. Chick-un? Stayke? Do you really need to mold protein into the shape of a drumstick, complete with a sugar cane bone? Shouldn't this lifestyle be about leaving all that behind?

Maybe Grass Root is on to something, though, because more than half the people at my table order these counterfeit dishes, maybe looking for a little familiarity. The chick-un ($9) isn't worth it, maybe due to bitter jerk seasoning liberally pasted to the outside. Stayke ($9) has the spongy character common to stewed soy protein, but the gravy is good enough to encourage my carnivorous friend to finish his plate.

Best of the bunch is soy "parmesan" ($8), which is coated in spicy marinara heavy on the basil and vegan "mozzarella" subtle enough to mimic original. It's good.

Although I groan at the idea of a key lime "cheesecake" ($4) devoid of real cheese, it's another dish where Grass Root can teach us something. Smooth and creamy whipped soy — a little heavier than whipped cream — is laced with a mass of tart lime, piled atop a surprisingly good crust made entirely from crushed nuts and dried fruit.

For average diners, an open-minded outing to Grass Root will likely be a surprising and rewarding experience. For vegans and raw foodies, the cuisine at Grass Root is easily the best in town. And not just because it's the only one.

Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. He can be reached at [email protected]. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.

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