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There’s one problem with communal tables in restaurants: One doesn’t have the option of pointing to a room of strangers and saying, "I’ll sit beside the good-looking guy in the leather jacket."

Instead, you get who you get - which means your neighbors for the evening may be delightful company - or not.

My recent communal experience happened at DUMBO’s The Plant, inside chef Matthew Kenney’s Blue/Green Organic Juice Cafe. The meal took place in the 4,000 square foot factory-turned-kitchen, that houses a 20-seat cafe, cooking school, and - as of March 5 when a five-course, prix fixe menu was inaugurated - a place to stop for Friday evening dinner and sample Kenney and company’s take on raw food.

My husband and I joined a group of about 20 diners at one of two huge, marble-topped tables ringed with painfully hard, high wooden stools. The tables, I discovered mid-course, are used as food-prepping areas for the cafe, as well as work surfaces for class demonstrations.

The stools, which have oddly configured footrests, made for awkward eating: one of my knees was pressed hard against my husband’s; the other bumped my neighbor, causing an evening of mumbled "excuse me’s." After a few minutes of forced intimacy, the diner introduced herself.

"I’m a colon therapist," she said, wisely suggesting that we wait until the conclusion of our meal to discuss the specifics of her vocation.

To my husband’s left was an avowed vegan who eats "raw" in the warmer months only. In the winter, she can’t live without a bowl of hot pasta. A raw foods kitchen is vegan - meaning no animal products of any kind. To create palatable meals, a host of labor-intensive appliances are utilized, including sprouters, blenders, juicers and, filling in for stoves and ovens, there’s the dehydrator. Nothing in the food’s preparation is heated above 116 degrees, so essential enzymes - which raw foodists believe are needed to aid digestion - stay intact.

For raw food to be enjoyable, it needs to be prepared by a chef who is as concerned with its flavor and appearance as they are with creating healthy alternatives to mainstream cooking. The raw foods movement is relatively new to Kenney, 41, who discovered and became a convert to the cuisine in 2002. The chef recently opened Heirloom, a vegetarian restaurant in Manhattan, and previously owned Mediterranean restaurants in New York, Atlanta and Portland. He’s authored "Matthew Kenney’s Cooking," "Matthew Kenney’s Big City Cooking," and co-written "Raw Food/Real World: 100 Recipes to Get the Glow," with Sarma Melngailis.

Kenney and his associates were busy plating the first course, a large "dumpling" with sweet chili-lime sauce, while diners sipped a bracing, organic Sauvignon Blanc (Kir Yianni, 2004) that paired well with all the offerings. The dumpling is faux, of course. Anything on a raw food’s menu labeled "flatbread," "polenta," "ravioli," "cream" and "latte" would involve taboo cooking procedures or products. This "dumpling" was made of pureed coconut, spread thin and dehydrated until it became as pliable as the real thing. It’s filling, a mix of sesame and cashew nuts, was surprisingly meaty.

The "flatbread" that served as the base for the next course, consisted of a blend of zucchini and rosemary lightly sweetened with the "nectar" of agave (a slightly sweet succulent), then "cooked" in a dehydrator that removes the moisture and solidifies the mix. If I hadn’t been aware of the preparation, I’d guess I was nibbling on a thin slice of chewy pumpernickel. Slivers of fennel and ripe avocado topped the "bread," while a drizzle of sprightly basil pesto lent the summery tang of anise.

Truffled carrot "polenta" suffered from its comparison to the original. This version was mealy, and even with the addition of truffle oil, not particularly interesting after a few bites. I did enjoy the rich slices of portobello mushrooms in a blood orange glaze and the bright citrus note that came from pieces of that fruit.

Just thinking of the work that went into the "ravioli" makes me tired. The meat of young coconuts are sliced and slowly dehydrated until they’re still moist and noodle-like. They don’t taste much like the fruit, or, unfortunately the pasta they’re trying to emulate. Filling the wrappers are pieces of dense, woodsy shiitake mushrooms and baby bok choy, splashed with ginger cream. Cashew nuts - ground, juiced and God knows what else - form the base for the sauce, and in this case, the creamy, lemony blend is worth the labor.

The meal ended with a thud. Marzipan cream cake featured three layers of ground almonds flavored with vanilla bean and agave then dehydrated into moist yet gummy, overly large "cookies." Chocolate "ganache" filling that iced the "cookies" was close enough to the real thing, but together, the frozen dessert was heavy going.

With the last course, Kenney served a cold drink made with hazelnut "milk," maple syrup and cinnamon that was pleasant, but I was dying for a cup of hot coffee.

As I was about to leave, the "colon therapist" handed me her card. She made pleasant company during the dinner (we never discussed her profession), but after that meal, I won’t be needing her services.

Blue/Green Organic Juice Cafe at The Plant (25 Jay St. at John Street in DUMBO) accepts American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Blue/Green is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm. On Friday evenings, a four to five course, $40 prix fixe dinner is offered. Times are subject to change. Classes take place Wednesday evenings, from 6 pm to 9 pm, and are $65 each. For an event schedule, log onto www.theplantindumbo.com or call (718) 722-7541.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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