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Halfway through a multi-course tasting dinner at Green Paradise, a raw foods restaurant in Prospect Heights, my husband said, "I’ve never tasted anything like this."

The "this" was a faux "pizza" with a nut crust, and pepper and pineapple toppings, one of several raw food wannabes we sampled that tried hard to mimic the real thing.

The restaurant’s chef and owner, Mawule Jobe-Simon, is a vegan and raw foods enthusiast from Trinidad who opened his tiny, mostly takeout restaurant, in September 2002.

Jobe-Simon has worked in the kitchen of Quintessence, a restaurant with two branches in Manhattan that is known for gourmet raw foods. His mentor is Aris La Tham, a chef who opened the Sunfire Juice Club in Park Slope, where Jobe-Simon cooked, before La Tham decamped to Negril where he opened the Sunfire Spa.

Raw foodists believe that heating food over 116 degrees destroys the enzymes that aid in digestion, causing toxicity in the body. A raw foodist eats organic fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, sea vegetables, olives and cold-pressed olive oil and nuts - lots of nuts - but no animal or dairy products, nothing processed and no sugar.

Raw food extremists shy away from honey - it’s a byproduct of an insect. Some eschew any kind of "hybrid" fruit or vegetable preferring nature’s unadulterated offerings.

While a raw food meal isn’t prepared the traditional way - over a stove or in the oven - it’s far from a simple slice-and-dice affair. Before a meal hits the table, ingredients are whirled in a food processor or blender; whipped in a Vita-Mix; and grains are opened in a "sprouter" (a layered contraption in which seeds - alfalfa, broccoli, mung beans and radishes, to name a few -are watered and in two to four days, sprouts are sprung). Fruit and vegetables are reduced to their essence in a dehydrator.

What emerges are raw food imposters of dishes so ingrained in our minds to taste a certain way, that anything trying to mimic their flavors will disappoint us. As anyone who has ever eaten a "veggie burger" - hoping to enjoy it as much as the fabulous, fatty beef thing off the grill - will tell you, simply giving a dish a familiar name, as Jobe-Simon has done, doesn’t make it so.

"Pasta" made of shredded zucchini doesn’t make it pasta, and calling a dish layered with ground nuts, faux cheese and dehydrated tomatoes a "pizza" won’t fool anyone, either.

Raw food enthusiasts say that their cuisine should be appreciated without comparison to the delicious, unhealthy SAD (standard American diet) foods most of us enjoy.

I agree in theory, but bad-for-you food is my only point of reference.

Without the aid of heat to soften flavors and crisp textures, and no butter to enrich sauces, Jobe-Simon works hard to blend flavors. He grinds pecans and mixes them with olive oil, cilantro and a touch of orange juice, then adds a smoky finish with dried chipotle pepper for a hearty (nothing I tasted could be described as light) hot, spicy and smoky dip.

Celery stalks were used in place of crackers.

The falafel, made of chickpeas and sunflower seeds, looked and tasted like balls of dark rye bread, although their cashew sauce was pleasantly creamy and nutty.

The best dish of the evening was the sweet and sour plantain salad served as a side dish with the falafel. Slices of the sweet banana were tossed with lemon juice and olive oil and brightened with parsley.

Whole mushrooms marinated in pineapple juice and ginger, served in a lush Brazil nut and garlic cream sauce, were delectable - firm yet tender and with the heat of the ginger adding a kick to the sauce.

I enjoyed the nutty flavor of a wild rice salad seasoned with lots of garlic and olive oil, but not its texture. The grain is soaked, not simmered, until it sprouts. I’ll be kind and say it was chewy. Two forkfuls gave my mouth a workout.

There was an odd "pizza," with layers of macadamia nut "cheese"; a sauce made of dehydrated tomatoes that tasted like good tomato paste mixed with green, red and yellow peppers; olives; mushroom slices; and pineapple (I liked the pineapple) spread over a dense chickpea and sunflower seed crust. As a vegetarian offering, it wasn’t bad, but even with the pineapple, I wanted it served warm and I was in the wrong place for that.

The disaster of the evening was the banana pancakes. They looked dark and damp and tasted like batter that came off the grill too soon. A tart, well-made raspberry sauce and banana slices were a welcome relief.

Two of the three sweet "pies" were satisfying dessert choices. (The third, flavored with pods from the mesquite tree, had no flavor.) For his mango pie, Jobe-Simon grinds walnuts with dates for a sweet, chewy crust. He then tops the crust with a delicious mango pudding and scatters fresh raspberries on top. In another dessert, with the same crust, he layers slices of bananas and tops it with a fluffy banana-and-coconut pudding and a crunchy topping of crisp almonds.

All I needed with the pies was a cup of coffee, but that was not to be.

If I ate only raw foods, I suspect I would live a longer, healthier life - after all, everything on the diet is pure, fresh and rich in fiber. But without coffee and chocolate, bread and butter, and the occasional rare burger and glass of red wine to look forward to, I’m not sure I’d want to.

 

Green Paradise (609 Vanderbilt Ave. between St. Marks Place and Bergen Street in Prospect Heights) accepts cash only. Grand re-opening on March 5, 2-8 pm. Entrees: $5-$7.50. Daily specials $10-$14. Lunch and dinner is served Tuesdays through Sundays. Closed Mondays. For information, call (718) 230-5177.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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