Who said food has to be cooked?

118 degrees
2981 Bristol Suite B5
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 754-0718

As conventional wisdom goes, a trip to a gourmet restaurant should yield a cornucopia of cooked goods, ranging from pork to salmon to beef to frog.  These dishes will likely be preceded by a savory salad and followed by a sweet dessert.  But who says that’s the way it must be done.  Nobody, that’s who.

I had the great privilege of attending a special 5-course wine dinner at 118 degrees last night.  Now, 118 degrees is not your standard restaurant: they only serve raw food.  What?  A whole restaurant dedicated to serving uncooked dishes?  Yes, it turns out they do exist, and from the palpably excited atmosphere I witnessed last night, they’re thriving.  I admit, I was surprised myself to learn that there existed such diverse-enough spectrum of food to support a fine-dining restaurant, but indeed there is and I sampled quite a bit of it over five courses.

The name 118 degrees comes from the idea that any food cooked above 118 degrees Fahrenheit begins to lose its healthy aspects, or in some cases takes on actual harmful qualities.  While I might (and do) debate whether the trade-off of outright health versus taste and texture in the setting of a restaurant is a good one, I suppose the more interesting point is that this harsh restriction on the chef clearly forces them to become more creative with ingredients that other chefs may only see as periphery or garnishes.

The upshot of this obviously is that each dish is unlike any you’ve ever seen or tasted in your life, but the downside is that because the tastes are so unfamiliar and the textures so unique, it may be a tough hurdle for some to leap over.  This isn’t the first time I’ve been to a raw food restaurant, so I wasn’t entirely uninitiated, but it was still what I would deem challenging food.  If you’re willing to experiment, eating raw food can introduce to a whole new world of culinary adventure.

The theme of the evening was a five course wine dinner that paired 100% organic wines and champagne with dishes that aren’t usually on the nightly menu.  The result was filled with ups, downs, lefts, and rights, but if anything it was remarkable.

We began our meal with a compressed summer berry salad paired with an organic cava sparkling wine from Spain named Can Vendrell.  To be honest, the organic champagne tasted like any other champagne I’ve ever had, so nothing to report there.  The summer berry salad was quite a creation, though, visually and otherwise.  It certainly struck a beautiful pose with its bright red strawberries contrasting sharply with the dark, sensuous greens below.  To be frank, I’m not generally a fan of overly sweet appetizers, and this may have been the sweetest I’ve had in a long while.  Though the strawberries were fresh and the dressing was wonderfully concocted, it was simultaneously too sweet in taste and too thick in dressing to be a pleasant beginning to the meal.

Onward and upward as they say!  I refused to let that oh-so-sweet misstep get me down, so I barreled through unperturbed to the next course: sweet coconut noodle soup.  If there was one dish during the meal that successfully paraded the culinary prowess of raw food, this was it.  While not boiling hot, the warm soup was an exercise in textural dexterity, adeptly blending thin slices of squash, noodles made from coconut, and the semi-creamy, semi-airy, and all-delicious soup itself that was so vigorously unadulterated that the coconut was given center stage.  Truly a heart-warming soup.

I love cheese.  In fact, if I were to become a raw-food vegan, cheese may be the thing I miss the most.  So when I saw that there was going to be a raw, vegan variation of caprese, the classic Italian tomato-mozzarella-basil salad, I was overjoyed.  The tomatoes were exceedingly fresh and juicy, and the organic olive was superb–but how was the cheese?  Well, let’s just say it wasn’t as picturesque as mozzarella.

The pignolia cheese, made from nut milk, was a thoroughly unattractive sight and I’m sad to say it ruined the presentation, an important part of each dish for me.  Aside from that, I was extremely surprised to taste the concoction and discover that it tasted almost exactly like caprese.  Who knew?!  If you eat with your eyes closed, you may be hard pressed to tell the difference between this raw-food creation and a sumptuously authentic Italian caprese.  Well, maybe you should eat with your eyes closed anyway…

Up to this point, I haven’t yet pointed out explicitly that one issue casual, non-raw-foodist may have with eating this food is that it is typically phenomenally fatty because of the extensive use of nuts in each dish.  This tends to yield a sometimes-pleasing but always-filling mouthfeel and creaminess that some may like and others may shy away from.  The first three dishes managed to control the fat levels by offsetting it with either fresh, juicy fruit or sharp textures.  Unfortunately, the main course failed to avoid this crisis.

It felt like I was eating tasteless thick cream wrapped in rough, unpleasant seaweed.  My main course was saffron cannoli stuffed with marinated vegetables and garlic creme.  The cannoli itself, presumably made from some plant composite, was leathery, tough to chew, and on the whole unpleasant.  The stuffing of marinated vegetables could easily have been confused for chunks of tofu or any other bland, unrecognizable substance since the overload of sauce completely obscured any semblance of taste whatsoever.  What’s the deal with oversaucing and overdressing everything?  Chefs — just let the ingredients speak for themselves!  I would have loved to taste fresh, seasonal marinated vegetables, but all I got was creme (no garlic) wrapped in rawhide, a truly disappointing dish that had high potential.

At this point, I was a bit downtrodden: maybe I’m just not cut out for raw, vegan food I thought.  Maybe I just “don’t get it”.  But no, I’m open-minded, I know a bit about food, and I’m not crazy.  Then dessert came, and wow did it make up for the the cannoli.  We were presented with a beautiful assortment of cinnamon plums topped with vanilla custard, cherries in a deep, rich, velvety chocolate, and a hazelnut bar with espresso and vanilla gelato.

The star of this show was definitely the hazelnut bar — it was boldly rich, though no sickly sweet, and it allowed for a ballet-like interplay between the robust taste of espresso, the crunchy texture of the hazelnut, and the smoothly sweet flavor of the gelato.  When mixed with the fondue-like chocolate accompanying the cherries, the cake was elevated to raw-food nirvana.  While the plums were impressive in a minimalist way, I found them lacking as they were noticeably under ripe.  Admittedly, I think the dish requires the plums to be somewhat firm, but in that case a different fruit may have provided a more pleasant combination, perhaps a pair or an apple.

After five courses and countless mouthfuls of food I’ve never encountered before, I was finally done and I enjoyed the adventure immensely.  I’ve already pointed out what I considered the faults of individual dishes, but I’d like to briefly touch on what I found to be a shortcoming in raw food dining overall.  For me, a “traditional” dinner, with its vast spectrum of options and possibilities, provides for a more sensorially exciting experience.

Let me explain: if you think about the world of different textures available to a traditional chef, from the succulent crispiness of shrimp to the deep, chewiness of a well-cooked filet to the creamy, melt-in-your-mouth foie gras, I can’t help but the think, at least from my experiences thus far in raw food restaurants, the potential for a meal to continually surprise your mouth is greater for the traditional chef.  Raw food chefs have to be content with using vegetables, fruit, nuts, and variations thereof, and to my pleasant surprise much can be done with those seemingly restrictive ingredients.  However, where traditional food is perhaps lacking in degree of sheer creativity demonstrated by raw food, it more than makes up for it in both variation and accessibility.

118 degrees is a journey not to be undertaken by the faint of heart or the weak of stomach.  I was continually impressed by what could be accomplished with such an apparently limited set of ingredients and “cooking” techniques, but I was unfortunately less enamored with the actual results.  Because of this, 118 degrees is likely to continue to cater mostly to those who are raw foodist, vegan, or even vegetarian themselves.

For those who don’t possess any personal qualms against eating cooked food, the overall experience is lacking in the requisite reward of exquisitely memorable tastes and flavors for the dining sacrifice of man’s best culinary friend for millennia: fire.  Unless I become a raw foodist overnight, I doubt I’ll be returning to 118 degrees anytime soon.

To see more pictures from my visit to 118 degrees, please visit the photo gallery.

Mark posted this on August 9, 2008 and is filed under Restaurants.

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