Pizza? Salmon? Foie gras??? I thought OrganicLives was a vegan, raw-food restaurant.
Relax, dear granola crunchers, it is. The food at this multipurpose warehouse diner is all meat-dairy-sugar-corn-gluten-and-processed-oil free. There are no burners or ovens in the display kitchen, and nothing has been heated above 46C.
Vegetarian or not, you'll probably spend the entire meal marvelling at how they make everything so texturally interesting and delicious.
The pizza ($10), for example, tastes like a really good (albeit cold) pizza thanks to a thin flatbread crust made of dehydrated vegetable purée and outstanding toppings that include a creamy pine-nut "cheese", sweet pineapple chunks, crunchy peppers, salty Peruvian sun-dried olives and a vibrant hemp-basil pesto.
The "foie gras" obviously isn't duck liver. It's a sprouted pecan, chive and vegetable pâté shaped into small balls that come with Brazil-nut "cream cheese" for spreading on thick rounds of soft lavender bread. Sprinkled with tiny purple lavender buds and served with a juicy tomato and mesclun-mix salad, the French Country Feast ($18) is as delightful to behold as it is to devour.
Owner Preet Marwaha, who credits a plant-based diet for saving his life after he was diagnosed with colitis as a teenager, is deadly serious about the integrity of his restaurant and retail products. His ingredients aren't just organic, fair trade and sourced from small (often local) farms. They're all third-party tested to ensure that the purity and nutrient levels exceed "even the strictest" U.S., Japanese, European and kosher standards, according to the restaurant's website.
His earnestness, however, hasn't prevented him from reaching out to the masses with a few winks. OrganicLives, get it?
"If we put 'raw food' on the sign outside, average, mainstream people would never come in," he says, noting that there are some customers who fail to see the humour in his "foie gras" or the "salmon" made from sprouted seeds and nuts.
"Some get very upset," he says, shrugging. "But everyone talks about it." And the recruitment tactics seem to be working, considering that he says 30 to 40 per cent of his clientele are meat eaters.
Of course, you'd really have to be searching for this type of food to find the restaurant, which is hidden away in an East End industrial neighbourhood. It doesn't even look like a restaurant with its cavernous ceiling, cement walls, takeout counter, self-serve coolers and glassed-in kitchen area where many of the products for Mr. Marwaha's online and in-house retail stores are also prepared.
Although difficult to find, OrganicLives has attracted some unlikely fringe elements - such as the two glassy-eyed, dark-tanned women who are stocking up on bottles of frozen young organic coconut water ($5 and $12) the night we visit.
"It's just like Red Bull, but it doesn't give you the jitters," one says to me, explaining the appeal of this natural isotonic beverage that Mr. Marwaha manufactures in Thailand and imports.
"Do you think they're doing it with drugs?" we ask the affable owner, who is more than happy to spend hours educating us about the miraculous properties of his enzymatically stable and nutrient-rich products.
"I don't know," he replies with a calm, Zen-like chuckle. "But whatever you take it with would be absorbed instantly."
Table service is a lot slower. "Why are the chai lattes taking so long?" I wonder out loud, as we dig in to masala-almond cakes ($10) that are infused with freshly ground spices and served with spicy mint chutney and huge spinach leaves for dipping and wrapping.
"They're still making it," my friend says. "Listen, can't you hear it?" she says, pointing out the loud whirring noise emanating from a distant corner of the warehouse.
It's a high-performance Vitamix blender, an essential tool for any raw-food kitchen, which slowly liquefies almonds into tepidly warm milk. You can buy them here at the store, along with dehydrators.
I'm amazed at what Mr. Marwaha, a self-taught cook, can create with just fruits, vegetables and nuts.
How does he make lasagna ($12) - a gorgeous dish with pesto, nut cheese and sun-dried tomato sauce layered between gossamer-thin sheets of zucchini - taste so meaty? Can almond croutons (in the Caesar salad) really crackle with such crunch? Are you sure there's not rum in this fluffy coconut cream pie?
Mr. Marwaha isn't hoarding any secrets. He'll be happy to show anyone how he does it once his cooking school (located within the warehouse) gets off the ground later this month. And as if this food weren't innovative enough, he also plans to open a proper fine-dining restaurant in the near future.
All power to him - and his wife, a full-time schoolteacher who spends her evenings and weekends working in the restaurant.
Count me among the converts. I still can't believe it's all raw.