When I told my date we were going to a raw foods restaurant, her face wrinkled with worry. "You mean they don't cook the meat?" she asked.
"It's a vegan place, so there is no meat," I said. "Just raw organic veggies."
Then she brightened: A vegetarian restaurant where no one cooks. "Maybe I can work there!" she quipped. "Even I can make a salad."
Salads were on the menu. But we decided that ordering one would let the restaurant off easy. After all, this is a place that stakes its name and reputation on not heating its food past 118 degrees, a temperature at which, the menu explains, "the natural enzyme value and nutritional contents of raw plant foods begin to break down and become useless for the body."
Holistic philosophy aside, 118 Degrees looked as posh as any steakhouse, complete with orange velvet chairs and a wine list. In fact, if our server didn't smell strongly of incense and the customers weren't mostly hipster women in flip-flops, no one would be the wiser.
And as long as you didn't read the fine print, the menu—with its tortellini, tamales and nachos—sounds like a night out at the Olive Garden or El Torito.
We started with the nachos and found them brighter and lighter on the palate than the junk food they emulated. Pico de gallo—a raw food in and of itself —crowned a pile of sweet corn kernels, slivered bell peppers, julienned carrots, avocado and desiccated zucchini. A tangy white sauce acted as the cheese and sour cream, binding them together. Shards of flax-seed crisps supplanted tortilla chips. They crumbled instead of crunched when bitten but had the guiltless and greaseless mouth feel of a very dense Wheat Thin cracker.
In between bites, we drank juice from a coconut with its top lopped off. After we finished sipping, our server whisked the empty shell away to the kitchen, and then brought it back halved so we could scrape off the meat with a spoon.
Another appetizer, the Shitake Sushi Rolls, used nori for a seaweed burrito packed with sliced shitake, carrots, and a yellowish substance that looked and tasted like couscous. Since the menu made no mention of it, I asked and discovered it was ground macadamia nuts.
Throughout the meal, like the whirring of their blenders, the question "What's in this?" was always in the background. The kitchen seemed to work on a whim, improvising their dishes with ingredients not often listed on the menu.
The Macadamia Coconut Curry Wrap, for instance, had more hummus that oozed out of the curry-brushed whole-wheat wrapper than the "fresh farmers market vegetables" detailed in the description of the dish.
This curry wrap was one of three items in the Sobeca Sampler, which offered tastes of different entrées on one plate. The second was the Florentine Lasagna, in which layers of thinly sliced zucchini and tomato subbed for noodles. Gobs of ricotta and a basil-infused marinara punctuated every forkful. Dried tomatoes crowned the square and were as intensely concentrated as the portobello mushrooms accompanying them. Although one must suspend disbelief to avoid calling this dish lukewarm veggie casserole, for me, it still worked as a lasagna.
By that point in the meal, we were tired of raw carrots. So the third item, called Garden Tahini Roll, didn't impress since it was almost identical to the carrot-stuffed sushi roll we had earlier.
What did was a fourth, bonus offering of sliced heirloom tomatoes garnished with basil and macadamia-nut crisps. Perkier than spring and sweeter than summer, they were the highlight of our meal—and the best argument for raw food yet.
Unfortunately, dessert should've taken its cues from them. The Banana Butter Pie was a misnomer, as it wasn't so much a pie as it was a sticky glob of gray paste in a bowl. "This tastes like liquid burlap," my date remarked. There were bananas to be had, but they were dried into inedible leathery planks more appropriate for use on Birkenstocks than as food.
The peaches in their Peaches and Cream also should've been left alone. The halved fruit was warmed slightly in the dehydrator and draped in a gritty vanilla sauce. The dessert would've done better had the peaches been served as nature intended: whole, unheated and unadorned.
We left 118 Degrees with a renewed appreciation for raw foods, especially the kind that is truly raw.
Hmm . . . Maybe we should've tried the salads after all.
118 DEGREES, 2981 BRISTOL ST., COSTA MESA, (714) 754-0718; WWW.SHOP118DEGREES.COM. OPEN DAILY, 7 A.M.-9:30 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $60-80, EXCLUDING DRINKS.
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