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  LET'S PLAY PRETEND! A YOKEL'S GUIDE TO PURE FOOD & WINE.  
   
   
 

Awaken your inner child. Remember back when you were a little kid and you used to play pretend? You could make a gourmet pizza armed with nothing but a slice of white bread, a squirt of ketchup and a Kraft American single. You could get "drunk" on a root beer; and your collection of plush animal toys were all the company you needed for an eloquent tea party. Those were the days, right?

Well, if you yearn to rekindle that same spirit of wonder and imagination, Pure Food & Wine is the perfect place for you -- and believe me, you'll need it. Located at 54 Irving Place, near Gramercy Park, Pure is the crowning jewel of New York's trendiest dining "lifestyle" -- the gastronomical hall of mirrors known as Raw Food.

There you'll enter a realm where nothing is quite as it seems, and your imagination will be stretched to its very limits. There's the amazing kitchen with no ovens, staffed by cooks who, strictly speaking, don't actually cook anything. There are the non-gender specific bathrooms (I found out about this the hard way), and then of course, there's the food, or should I say "food." So step right up, folks! Step right up, and prepare to suspend your disbelief at the Frankensteinian wonders known as "Raw Food." It'll thrill you! It'll chill you! It will make you shit green poop!

Witness the amazing "noodles" made of coconut, the "cheese" made of cashews, the "taco" with "beans" made from flax, sunflower seeds and sun-dried tomato, respectively. Sound strange? You're just not imagining hard enough.

Everything Tastes Better With Ketchup

Wisely, Pure has done a good job downplaying the political, social and health implications of the Raw Food "movement," by aiming the spotlight squarely onto the food itself. You won't find a single dirty hippy handing out fliers or smell so much as a whiff of patchouli in Pure's dining room; you'd probably have to go into the kitchen for that.

The plates are beautifully arranged, the atmosphere is dim and romantic and the waiters are knowledgeable and pleasant. Of course, all of this does not add up to a satisfying meal, but it does go a fair way toward covering up the deficiencies inherent with such a strict diet. The only problem with Pure's dining room, aside from the food, is that the tables are tighter than Timmy and Lassie. Apparently they're arranged to a Raw Foodist's scale because the average carnivore will find it difficult to stand up without their ass making a walk-on cameo at the neighboring tables. This may be the best motivation yet for adopting a Raw Food diet.

Pure's most ingenious culinary maneuver takes a page straight from the playbook of an unlikely ally: good old heartland Yokels such as myself. Is mom's meatloaf a little on the dry side today? Just add ketchup. Is Grandpa's Frito Pie a little heavy on the Fritos? No problemo! Just add another glob of Old El Paso Thick 'N' Chunky.

As if to acknowledge the relative tastelessness of their dishes, Pure has opted to drown just about everything in the most dazzling sauces they can come up with, and, given free reign with oil, vinegar, fresh herbs and spices, they manage to pull off some inspired feats.

The creamy cauliflower samosas, though less than creamy, sit between charming islands of tart banana tamarind sauce and garam masala. The fennel, rosemary and cashew "cheese" tart is too small and too bland, but comes with a few wedges of juicy blood orange and a mouth-watering zigzag of pinot blanc dressing. The cucumber-mint salad is crunchy and refreshing. The avocado, tomato-lime salsa is also excellent, but, after all, it's hard to fuck up a ripe avocado.

It's all enough to leave you wishing the Pure masterminds would just forget about their principles for a minute and grill up a juicy t-bone or a flaky salmon steak … something, anything worthy of these sauces.

This brings up a final, though extremely important, point about the Raw Food experience. The best meals act on all of our senses, and when we taste something, we taste as much, if not more, with our noses as with mouths. Who can forget the intoxicating smell of cooking garlic, onions and peppers? The waft of fragrant steam from a fresh bowl of chicken soup? But without the benefit of heat, of fire, of cooking, almost all of these wonderful aromas lay dormant. And so it goes at Pure: Taking a big, satisfying whiff of your Spicy Thai lettuce wrap is like shaking hands with a brick wall. You get nothing but air.

There was one dish that managed to fly in under the radar and quench my fat-starved stomach. The zucchini and golden tomato lasagna with basil-pistachio pesto, sun-dried tomato sauce and pignoli ricotta -- Pure's signature dish -- was excellent. The layered zucchini, (perfectly, uh, cooked?) is a natural stand-in for the pasta, and the "ricotta," made from pine nuts, was shockingly cheese-like.

Vitamins and Principles

Raw Food is the answer to all those who love the expense, inflexibility and cruelty-free healthy living of traditional Veganism, but yearn for a dining experience even more restrictive, expensive and unsatisfying.

The tenets of the Raw Food movement set forth a dietary regimen on par with the average post-op bypass surgery diet, without the perks of Jell-O and painkillers.

The basic vegan principles are abided -- no animal byproducts of any kind -- but Raw Food takes this a step further by cutting out all refined sugar and grain, using only organically grown vegetables and legumes (nuts). Essentially, Raw Food throws out cooking altogether, in favor of something more akin to high-intensity relish plattering.

Back home, they call it rabbit food.

In order to preserve the full share of enzymes that Raw Foodists believe are necessary to flush the toxins out of your muck-encrusted intestines, nothing served at Pure is heated above 115 degrees Fahrenheit -- about as hot as your average shower. Just to compare: water boils at 212 degrees, and the average hamburger is heated to about 165 degrees on the inside.

Like revenge, Raw Food is a dish best served cold, and indeed -- with entrée prices averaging $22 -- most of these dishes feel like somebody is playing a cruel joke on you.

The golden rule observed at the dinner table of many a heartland family goes something like this: no politics or religion during supper, unless you want to be up all night on the toilet. But a bite or two into Pure's "corn" empanada -- which, charitably speaking, tastes something like a thin piece of honey-soaked cardboard -- the inevitable questions begin to pile up like so many Nori wraps: Why go to all this trouble? Wasn't veganism hardcore enough?

The answers to these questions are multitudinous, and to some degree, up for debate: add a dollop of factory farming, a dash of genetically modified crops, a spritz of pesticide, a pinch of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, chronic obesity, land degradation, hypertension, global warming, birth defects, deforestation, spiritual bankruptcy -- your average round up of modern human scourges.

As issues go, these are not as appetizing as, say, the top 10 movies of the year, but of course fanatics aren't known for their sparkling conversational skills. To be fair, the Raw Foodists are fighting the good fight, globally speaking, but for god's sake -- does it have to taste so empty?

But in the end, it probably won't matter. The Raw Foodists can take heart knowing that long after I've become a raw feast for the worms, they'll still be slurping up organic fruit smoothies and making a difference.

 

Brian Bernbaum writes a monthly 'Yokel's Guide' dining column for The Black Table. He is also the mind behind Hipsters Are Annoying.