It's not what you think. Nothing's been touched by heat or flame, and everything came from a plant, served cool and raw.
The patty is made of sun-dried tomatoes, flax seed, red peppers, garlic and mushrooms. The bun is fashioned out of almond pulp, flax and buckwheat. The layer of cheesy spread is actually made of cashews, soaked and beaten by a food processor. The tomatoes, lettuce, onion, avocado and other natural fixings aren't in costume.
You'll find this dish on the menu between the enchilada and spicy three-layer burrito at Cilantro Live!, one of two raw-food restaurants serving vegan, all-organic fare that have opened in the last four months in North County.
Cilantro Live! opened in February in the Carlsbad Village Shopping Center. Neshama, off Highway 101 in Leucadia, opened in May with a menu of Asian and Mediterranean-inspired cuisine, such as "couscous" made of cauliflower and angel hair "pasta" made of zucchini strands and fresh crushed tomato marinara.
Together the two are giving local vegans and adventurous eaters a taste of the fresh, all-natural cuisine dubbed simply "raw." According to the rules of raw food, everything must be plant-based and organic ---- naturally grown with no pesticides or chemicals. And raw ---- nothing can be cooked past 118 degrees in order to keep the enzymes of the all-natural food alive.
At Neshama, that means foods are never prepared past 115 degrees and at Cilantro, it's 95 degrees, both well below the raw-food requirement.
"We're pioneering here, we realize that," said Mozy Kashte, who opened Neshama behind his popular salad-and-sandwich eatery Mozy's. "But we hope this will catch on. People who come in and try this have said they'll come back."
Cilantro Live! owner Cristina Guzman, who first opened a Cilantro Live! in Chula Vista three years ago, said her second location comes with a following of diners from North County and Orange County who made long treks south, traffic and all, to indulge in vegan fare.
"This kind of food makes people feel good," she said. "We take Mother Nature's beauty and give people a lot of energy. They feel alive."
A night out on the town
For people like Carlsbad resident Valerie Fogelstrom, the two restaurants are providing dinner choices for those whose strict diets call for plants and seeds.
Fogelstrom, 54, classifies herself as part raw vegan, with up to 80 percent of her diet coming from uncooked vegetables and seeds. The rest of her diet consists of steamed vegetables and lukewarm miso soup.
Like many with similar diets, going out for dinner is often a major challenge, she said. That's why she's the organizer of a North County raw foods meet-up group that holds monthly potlucks to share dishes and recipes. She says the restaurants offer colorful and succulent choices for a diet that could border on bland.
"I'm so excited," she said of the new restaurants. "Like anyone else, it's nice to go out for a social occasion, it's nice to go out and have something raw. It's nice to have beautifully prepared food once in awhile."
The foods offered at restaurants such as Cilantro and Neshama fall along the lines of raw gourmet. The result is a great-tasting break from what's usually prepared at home, she said.
While Fogelstrom said she may not have the budget to dine out often ---- most entrees cost between $10 and $16 at both places ---- she enjoys having the choice.
David Wolfe, cofounder of Nature's First Law, a nationwide raw-food diet information clearinghouse based in El Cajon, said raw food restaurants are on the rise.
"When I started out (12 years ago) there were two raw food restaurants in America; now there are over 60," he said. "This makes it easier for everybody. We don't have a lot of options, and raw food (restaurants) are creating options for us for dinner or lunch."
Wolfe said the raw food movement itself is catching on. Books, many of which he sells on his Web site www.rawfood.com, and publicity coming from celebrities boasting all-raw-food lifestyles are helping fuel the push for what he calls a healthier diet.
Experts and nutritionists have long argued that vegan diets can lack essential protein found in traditional diets that include meat and fish. But Wolfe and other fans said the vegan, all-raw approach can be balanced by incorporating high-protein vegetables and nuts into everyday eating.
Guzman, a longtime vegetarian who "stumbled" onto the raw movement before opening her Chula Vista restaurant, said it's all about playing with the colors and flavors of food to prepare balanced and attractive meals.
"Everything is our creation," she said of Cilantro's extensive menu of cold soups, salads, appetizers, main courses and desserts.
Guzman said bright-colored foods tend to have stronger flavors and more subdued ingredients carry lighter tastes. Blending the two is much like creating artwork, mixing the strong with the mellow, she said.
"Mother Nature has so many colors, you can't get anything wrong."
Natasha Baze, who helped Kashte open Neshama last month, said the food's vibrant colors also make it look inviting.
"That's the great thing about raw ---- the food keeps all of its natural colors," Baze said.
The decor at both establishments is for patrons a hint of the colorful palette of dishes that lies ahead.
The walls at Cilantro are home to large canvases of modern, simple artwork in vibrant colors. Lush wheatgrass centerpieces adorn each table.
At Neshama, the theme is a marriage of Middle Eastern and Asian with satin-like pillows for seats in the outside patio and dark wood to add depth. Tropical flowers in glass vases are scattered simply on tables.
"We want the place to invite people and to relax and energize them," Kashte said. "Like the food we serve."
Both restaurants rely on bare-bones kitchens lined with food dehydrators, processors, juicers, and blenders to prepare dishes. Because some foods take longer than others to prepare, the work often begins days before.
For example, one of Cilantro's top sellers is a "Buenos Vida" wrap that calls for rice. To prepare raw, hard rice for eating without cooking it, it is soaked for several days in large pans of cold water. The same goes for nuts used in the dishes to make such items as nut "cheeses" ---- both used as fillings and toppings for such dishes as Cilantro's alfredo sauce and "Roma Raw-violis."
Neshama uses nuts and seeds to make creamy pates to fill its chile rellenos and coconut wraps.
Nuts are also some of the main ingredients in desserts. Ground almonds are used to create pie crusts, for example. Nuts are also beaten into butters to create creamy fillings, topped with fruits.
When it comes to preparing dishes, the fillers and toppers are made ahead and refrigerated, then added to the various entrees. "It's a lot of preparation," said Guzman, while showing the stacks of trays soaking various nuts and rice in Cilantro's walk-in refrigerator.
The food, garnished with sprigs and vegetables, is like pieces of art at both restaurants.
As for naming their dishes, both restaurants rely on monikers borrowed from mainstream, cooked foods --- like the lasagna at Cilantro and the Moroccan stew at Neshama.
But Kashte said the names are merely references.
"If we use the term 'cheese' or the term 'tuna,' it's just to mimic the feel of the food," said Kashte. "It's to give people a guide when they have never tried this before."
As for Cilantro's "Royale Cheeseburger," Guzman has her own take:
"This is the way the cheeseburger was meant to be eaten," she said. "This is what people ate hundreds of years ago. The cooked food is trying to copy Mother Nature."
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