Raw Ambition

Pure Food and Wine restaurant in New York.
The soft corn tortillas at Pure Food and Wine.Photo: Carina Salvi

Well, since Usher and Jim McGreevey have made this the season of confessions, here’s mine. I would rather dive into a bloody-rare porterhouse than just about anything else you can put on the table—yet I wasn’t always so carnivorous. Both in college and again in the eighties, I followed macrobiotic diets. I even pretended fish bones were as fun to suck on as T-bones. So, while I didn’t exactly feel like a barbarian at the gates of Matthew Kenney’s Pure Food and Wine, neither did I relish the thought—or taste—of more seitan meat loaf and variations on Angelica’s mustard-plaster-dense desserts.

Pure is vegetarian and vegan, but it’s more than that. It serves the fashionable cuisine known as “raw food.” The ingredients are organically grown fruits, vegetables, and herbs. The kitchen has no ovens, range hoods, or gas. All dishes are prepared with blenders, dehydrators, and plenty of diligent chopping and whisking. Banished are eggs, dairy, sugar, and grains. Nothing edible is heated to more than 115 degrees. Pigging out (you should pardon the expression) at Pure won’t fatten you up, slow you down, or clog, well, any number of things. Bet you’re just salivating now.

But come on. Since so many of you have eagerly schlepped to WD-50 for venison tartare with edamame ice cream, surely your curiosity can accommodate a little Pure-ification. Let’s start with the things you know. How about sitting in the most spacious and congenial backyard garden in New York (it’s the old Verbena space)? What about being guided by an undeniably healthy-looking staff cheerfully committed to a cuisine they’ll happily explain with a blissful lack of pedantry? Or just taking your place among a roomful of attractive, animated folks? Management claims that only 25 percent of Pure’s clientele are vegans. That means most patrons are willing newcomers to this cuisine, and their collective high spirits are the first sign that Pure is more about uplifting discoveries than culinary I-dare-yous.

“The goal of Kenney’s dishes is a gentle harmony that recalls Lily Tomlin’s admonition: Instead of trying harder, ‘Try softer.’ ”

So, do yourself a favor. Forget the philosophizing about restoring enzymes to your digestion and wresting deep-seated toxins from your intestines. Pay close attention to a dish’s construction only if you plan to open a rival joint across the street. Instead, enjoy Kenney’s smashed pineapple and diced cucumber gazpacho—a dense but refreshing soup with a heady blast of green onion and cilantro plus a faint sting of jalapeño just before it goes down—for its sheer immediacy. Appetizers go for similar crackle and zip. Wafer-thin slices of daikon radish encircle a combo of green papaya and coconut like a wrap, ready for dipping into a graceful chili-coconut sweet-sour sauce with a high note of basil. Nuts play a vital role in vegan cooking, and they’re used frequently here. Pignoli blended into chopped jícama simulates sushi rice wrapped around marinated shiitake mushrooms invigorated with pickled ginger. Cashews provide crunch and protein in spicy Thai lettuce wraps that are also filled with chopped Napa cabbage, ginger, and mango—all awaiting a vivid tamarind chili sauce. Mango and Thai basil salad with star anise, red chili, and Brazil nuts offers as much exotic sunniness as one bowl can contain.

About the time entrées arrive, raw food’s novelty may start to dull a bit. Don’t blame it on the house sangría (though it’s pretty swell). More likely, it’s because there are certain adjustments “civilians” need to make for Pure to snare their hearts. Without traditional cooking, dishes elicit virtually no aroma, and that’s a significant sensory loss. Delightful as incredibly fresh hijiki and wakame can be when sparked by sour cherries, the rush won’t begin until your first chew. In addition, for those of us who are walking temples of refined sugar, trans-fatty acids, and a lifetime’s worth of gluten and salt, the subtleties of raw food can be difficult to appreciate. Flavors don’t shoot for that Bobby Flay bounce or Mario Batali pow. The goal of Kenney’s dishes is a gentle harmony that recalls Lily Tomlin’s admonition: Instead of trying harder, “Try softer.”

Look upon eating raw food as a culinary version of being “in the moment.” Seize the zebra tomato and zucchini lasagne with a creamy “pesto” of pulverized pistachios and basil. Scoop out the brash chili-spiced “beans” (made from sunflower seeds and sun-dried tomatoes) from the soft corn tortilla and drag them through the fine tomato-lime salsa. If you can’t quite imagine thin strips of golden squash being “pasta,” focus on the black truffles to make the illusion work. Think less about what dishes you can compare these to, and concentrate more on how satisfying they are. There’s one other adjustment you may need to make. All those vegetables, so little meat, bread, and cheese. You’re smart people. Can I stop now?

It’s much more soothing to end by telling you about the lyrical lemon mousse with blueberries and the seductive black cherries with candied almonds and lemon thyme. But the neatest surprise of all is that there is a thick, dense, and oh-so-lovely chocolate cake. At a place you’d assume might be all about denial, it’s one awfully sweet reward.

The great chef Jean-Jacques Rachou is embarking on an adjustment of his own. By converting one of New York’s most celebrated dining establishments, the recently departed La Côte Basque, into the more egalitarian Brasserie LCB, the legendary 69-year-old chef hopes to reconnect with a city that still appreciates French cooking but is increasingly uninterested in its accompanying pomp and ceremony. It’s a tough trick for a man who sees a brasserie in far more orthodox terms than Keith McNally. LCB’s location remains as unsexy as a hug from your firm’s senior vice-president. The room is overlit and way too shiny, as if it were annexed to an upscale Radisson. The menu, so classic as to boast sole meunière and beef Rossini, makes you wonder where the challenge is for a man of Rachou’s gifts. It’s as if Lance Armstrong took on a paper route. Well, here’s the reality. You can either bemoan haute cuisine’s demise with nostalgic platitudes, or you can get over it, and sit your ass down in a banquette, and let the great man feed you. If you do, you will be rewarded with the best classic gazpacho in town, fragrant steamed mussels in white wine and onion, a foie gras terrine worth an extra Crunch class, luscious halibut in a rich confit of garlic, cassoulet to make you yearn for October, a Grand Marnier soufflé that makes you want to linger past last call, and a floating island to make you wish you were on one—as long as Rachou was the cook there.

Pure Food and Wine
54 Irving Place; 212-477-1010.

Brasserie LCB
60 West 55th Street; 212-688-6525.

Pure Food and Wine, 54 Irving Place (212-477-1010). Dinner, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday, 5:30 to midnight Thursday through Saturday. Lunch, noon to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Appetizers, $8 to $11; entrées, $16 to $22. All major credit cards.

Brasserie LCB, 60 West 55th Street (212-688-6525). Dinner, 5 to 11 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Lunch, noon to 3 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Appetizers, $10 to $22; entrées, $25 to $38. Pre-theater prix fixe: $39. All major credit cards.

Raw Ambition