I respect the dietary choices made by all vegans and vegetarians, but I'm particularly in awe of the commitment required by the raw-food movement. As if avoiding all meat and animal products isn't already challenging, it takes a certain kind of tenacity to voluntarily deprive yourself of the one thing that has defined the act of cooking since the cavemen rubbed two sticks together: heat.
If you're new to the concept, just imagine a Top Chef challenge in which the twist is you can't raise the temperature of the food you're "cooking" past 118 degrees Fahrenheit—the equivalent of a hot day in Phoenix. Why? That's the point on the thermometer at which raw-food proponents believe food starts to lose nutritive value. Now imagine doing it all the time, from the appetizers to the dessert.
Marchell Williams, owner and chef of Au NatuRaw in Santa Ana, has decided to do just. I'm not going to bore you with the purported health benefits (you can read the full manifesto on Au NatuRaw's website if you want) or the counterargument by some that cooking with fire is what has separated us evolutionarily from the apes, but I will tell you that when you dine at Williams' new eatery, you realize that cookies, rice, even hot soup—foods stove-, oven- and barbecue-grill-using members of society take for granted—are verboten for the raw-food chef.
Au NatuRaw, 206 N. Broadway, Ste. A, Santa Ana, (714) 955-4774; www.aunaturaw.com. Open Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.- 8 p.m. Dinner for two, $25-$50, food only. No alcohol.
Au NatuRaw's cookies, for instance, aren't cookies at all. They don't crumble and crunch, but are rather thick, fruit-leather-bound, granola-like drink coasters that chew with the consistency of Gummi Bears. And when you order the cream of broccoli soup, you discover it's tepid by design—less soup and more of a guacamole-colored smoothie served at body temperature in a sundae glass. Furthermore, it burns your throat going down because nothing in it—not the smooth-blended broccoli, not the spices, not the onions—has been tamed, softened or otherwise caramelized on a stove. What you sip is harsh, pungent, sharp and concentrated. But you wince through it, convinced by the notion something this grassy-tasting must be good for you. You're somehow egged on by the life-sized mural on one wall that has sunlight piercing through a forest. If Bigfoot were hiding in that scene and in possession of a blender, this is what he'd whip up for you.
Hummus here is still hummus, drizzled with a millimeter-thick layer of olive oil, but served with flaxseed-tortilla-chip triangles that will remind you of either particle board or Asian sesame brittle, depending on whether or not you're open-minded about the whole raw-food thing. Other than the salads, it's one of the few things Au NatuRaw serves that closely resembles its non-raw cousin. Yet even some of the salads aren't typical. There's one that has pineapple, candied pecans, julienned zucchini, carrots and mint molded into a wet dome. The dressing is a light, refreshing orange-hemp blend, which I imagined might eat quite well with a side of greasy, barbecue pork ribs if it were served elsewhere.
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For the same reason you wouldn't yearn for Disneyland while hiking through the Sierras, you won't miss eating meat here—there's a lot to keep you preoccupied and distracted. The best dish is the pad Thai, a concoction that doesn't taste like pad Thai yet manages to transcend that fact. It features noodles made from kelp—thin, angel-hair-like strands exhibiting so much of the translucence, resiliency and elasticity of the real thing it's uncanny. It even twirls on a fork the right way. Only when you bite do you notice the consistency is slightly crunchier, more wiggly and jelly-like than regular noodles. The best compliment I can pay is that halfway into it, I forgot what I was eating and simply started enjoying it.
A palak paneer does what it can to stay true to the Indian flavors it emulates, even though it's essentially a salad of uncooked spinach served with mangoes, piled atop a flaxseed tortilla, here as a tostada shell. The whisper of garam masala can be detected, and you realize you're familiar with the flavor profile despite it looking and feeling nothing like the classic Indian creamed-spinach dish. Beneath the leaves is a scoop of cold carrot pudding. Never mind that it's supposed to represent gajar halva, which is normally dessert. You excuse this because Williams and her crew deserve kudos for what they've managed to accomplish—and they're already planning to un-raw part of the menu.
This review appeared in print as "Cooks Who Don't Cook: Au NatuRaw offers raw food to downtown Santa Ana."