“How am I extraordinary? Where do I see abundance? Why am I healthy?”
Questions to ponder are sprinkled throughout Organic Garden Cafe’s long, long menu of healthy foods and beverages — soups, salads, smoothies, entrees, side dishes, desserts, even sake, beer, and wine. Because, as the menu states, “asking the right questions in life will lead you to more joy and fulfillment.”
Deciding to jump-start (yet again) my New Year’s heath-quest resolution, we headed to the Organic Garden Cafe in Beverly, which the owner says is the third-longest-running raw food restaurant in the United States.
At Organic Garden, the choices are vegan and vegetarian, mostly organic, and almost entirely gluten-free. You won’t find any dairy products (goodbye, cream sauce) or animal products. Every dish is prepared from scratch with certified organic vegetarian whole foods; there are no artificial or processed ingredients.
Moreover, the food isn’t fried or baked in an oven. Raw food proponents say high heat destroys the food’s enzymes and nutrients. Instead, dishes are warmed in low-heat, state-of-the-art dehydrators.
I wondered if a creamless/unfried/meatless/breadless meal would propel me to search for the nearest fast food afterward. The answer is no. Instead, we discovered a fine dining experience, without the white linens and the stuffiness that go with it.
The cafe’s menu has evolved over time, said chef Robert Reid, who opened the Organic Garden on the winter solstice in 1999.
“In the early years, it was an even more extreme menu,” he said. “There were less warm options in the fall and winter. About seven to eight years ago, we set up heat lamps to warm specials like the ‘spaghetti and meatballs’ and ‘linguini Alfredo.’ ” He explained that the food can be heated up to 140 degrees, so it “feels hot to a customer, but is still vibrant, rich in nutrients and enzymes.”
“The menu meets people wherever they are on their life path,” Reid continued. “They can come in at any level, and maybe try something more next time.”
Our path this night led us to some familiar territory, like the guacamole and chips appetizer ($9.50), the “chips” a combination of dehydrated flax suncrackers, cooked pita chips, and sliced vegetables. The new included kale chips ($5), leaves of spinach-like kale from First Light Farm CSA in Hamilton, dehydrated with a sunflower-and-red-pepper dressing. Like those “you can’t eat just one” potato chips, they disappeared.
On the menu, quotation marks signaled to newcomers like us that the dish was a healthy re-imagining of the “real” thing. Like the corn “chowder” ($5/cup), which tasted like, well, corn chowder, but was made with an almond base instead of cream.
We also shared a delicious Thai bowl ($10), filled with brown rice, bean sprouts, and veggies, with sunseed croquettes, curry sauce, almond-butter sauce, and Thai cashews.
Venturing further into the land of vegan/vegetarian entrees, we made the mind-body connection that happens for some, but not all, diners.
This didn’t surprise Reid. A good mix of his customers will go for a rice bowl in the beginning, he says, and have a good experience. But if they choose an item that’s a “full conversion,” their mind has to digest, so to speak, the fact that the food is explosively flavorful — but different.
That sums up our experience with the entrees. My husband’s choice, the nut butter “squash” ravioli ($16), is worth returning for alone. It was an artful display of heated ravioli, the “shells” made from thin slices of red beet folded over the squash, sprinkled with rosemary walnuts and a cashew Alfredo sauce.
The disconnect, however, happened with my “linguini Alfredo.” As I chewed the long strings of zucchini “pasta,” it “crunched” in my ears. It was served cooler than a normal dish of Alfredo, and my mind had difficulty equating the traditional dish to the one before me.
Our next step on the path was a spinach and caramelized onion pizza ($13.50 for a half; $24.50 for a whole). The gluten-free, dehydrated sprouted buckwheat, carrot, and flax crust and the cashew “mozzarella” took getting used to, as well as the onions that were more raw than caramelized. We took leftovers home. The next day, I lightly heated up both dishes for lunch and liked them. My mind had caught up to my stomach. Next time, knowing what to expect will help.
Eating raw and organic includes some indulgences, such as organic beers from Peak Organic Brewing Co., brewed in Portland, Maine, ($6.50/bottle); white and red wines (priced by glass/bottle) that have no sulfites added; and sake cocktails. Not to mention a full baker’s glass case stocked with pies, chocolates, and other desserts.
We took a small box of desserts home: a few decadent-tasting truffles, made with cacao powder ($3.25); an oversized vegan chocolate chip cookie ($3.50) big enough to be a meal in itself; and a chocolate macaroon, sweetened by apricots, dates, raisins, cacao powder, and coconut ($3).
Reid’s mission also includes teaching people how to become raw food chefs and create a healthy lifestyle at home. His next class is the weekend of April 13-14, to be held across the street at Chianti Tuscan Restaurant.