I had the most unusual lunch earlier this week: I ate an entire meal raw.
No, I mean the food was raw; I was fully dressed.
It wasn't sashimi and it didn't consist of shucked oysters. In fact, there were no meat or animal by-products involved at all.
And yet all the food I had at Cafe 118, a new restaurant in Winter Park, was wonderfully complex and had multiple levels of flavors and textures. I'm sure much of this will sound odd to the uninitiated, but trust me on this one: if you didn't know Cafe 118 served only raw, nonmeat foods, you might never figure it out.
Actually Cafe 118 goes even further -- all the foods here are organic. If you consider veganism to be extreme vegetarianism, think of what Cafe 118 does as severe veganism, although the words vegan or vegetarian appear nowhere on the menu.
The 118 in the restaurant's name refers to the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit that some foods are heated to. I stew myself in temperatures higher than that in the steam room at the Y. Going above that temperature, aficionados of raw cuisine profess, saps foods of their vitamins, enzymes and minerals. Raw foods, they assert, aid in digestibility and cell reconstruction, among other things, according to information on Cafe 118's menu. I can't attest to any of that. But I can tell you that the food I had at Cafe 118 was all quite delicious, and it's presented in a stylish and even (dare I say?) gourmet fashion.
I took along a friend who is a practicing vegan, except he has a sense of humor. He had, of course, known all about Cafe 118 and had tasted everything on the menu. He ordered the beet ravioli for himself and suggested I try the shiitake mushroom "lasagna."
The "lasagna," as you might guess from the quotation marks, had no pasta -- that would have required cooking, as well as an egg or two most likely. Instead, this lasagna was made with strips of thinly sliced zucchini layered with sun-dried tomatoes, herb pesto and a ricotta-cheeselike substance fashioned out of raw macadamia nuts. Assuming the tomatoes had been dried in the sun under 118 degrees, the only thing in the dish that had been so processed was the stack of chewy shiitake mushrooms on top. It was a delicious mix of textures and all quite tasty.
But as much as I enjoyed my lasagna, I liked my friend's ravioli even more. No pasta here either, of course. This time the wrapper was made from pureed and dried beets that formed sheets. The filling was more of the wonderful macadamia ricotta, which was even better with the bright flavor of the beets. A stack of tangy arugula with a pear wine sauce accompanied the dish.
For dessert we had the banana almond butter cup ice cream, which, of course, had no cream. No dairy at all, to be sure. Yet it was as cool and creamy as any Haagen-Dazs concoction.
Juices and "milk" shakes are another specialty at Cafe 118. I had the divine cherry, blended with almond milk and coconut butter. It was good, but not something I think I'd order again.
If your concept of vegan restaurants is all hemp and tie-dyed designs, you'll be surprised at Cafe 118. The decor features polished tile floors and granite tabletops. The restaurant occupies a small but bright and cheery spot on Morse Boulevard, just east of Park Avenue. Its ambience befits its address.
So do the prices. You may be thinking that raw foods would be less expensive than cooked foods. After all, the utility bill should be lower at this place. But as explained by our waiter (who was, by the way, a knowledgeable and helpful guide who answered all of my questions with expertise), the food here takes a great deal of preparation. And there's the organics factor, as well. That's why the entrees range from $13 to $18.
And something else I should mention. I found the food to be quite filling. Several hours after my lunch I was still feeling full and satisfied.
The menu here, by the way, was developed by raw foodist Matthew Kenney, whose name will be familiar to those who follow this type of cuisine and who has had several restaurants, all of which failed, in New York. However, despite what was reported in the Orlando Sentinel earlier this year (and re-reported by New York Magazine), Kenney is not a partner in Cafe 118; he merely consulted on the menu and spent a couple of weeks at the opening training the chefs.
He obviously did a good job. I thoroughly enjoyed my meal here, and I now have a new appreciation for the levels vegan cuisine can achieve.
Cafe 118 is at 153 E. Morse Blvd., Winter Park. It's open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. The phone number is 407-389-2233. For a full menu, visit Cafe 118's Web site.