In the raw

Exploring GRO Café's uncooked cuisine
By BRIAN DUFF  |  May 20, 2009

gro main
NOTHING OVER 112 DEGREES Raw food has its limits.
Photo by Rebecca Golfine

The new GRO Café offers a vegan menu on which (almost) nothing has been heated beyond 112 degrees. This is supposed to preserve something raw-foodists call "living enzymes," which they imagine to be important to our health. Technically that is nonsense. But that is not reason to dismiss GRO out of hand. Cultists with an attachment to pseudo-scientific ideas are responsible for some of history's greatest cultural achievements. The Christian-creationists who built the breathtaking Chartres Cathedral in France come to mind. But it's hard to get a good meal in the village of Chartres (I tried), and it's a little too hard to get one at GRO as well.

GRO CAFÉ | 437 Congress St, Portland | Mon-Sat 10 am-8 pm | cash only | 207.541.9119

It is rare that a cult gets things as completely wrong as the raw-food movement. With the exception of fruits, which best serve their evolutionary purpose by being eaten, plants would prefer us animals leave their other parts alone. So plants have evolved to contain a host of natural defenses to their successful digestion: oxalates, antithiamines, avidins, phytates, cyanogens, goitrogens, protease inhibitors, and amylase inhibitors. Cooking helps defeat these defenses. Anthropologist Richard Wrangham offers compelling evidence that it was the discovery of cooking that allowed Homo sapiens to flourish while our evolutionary cousins became extinct.

Even without cooking, GRO Café may evolve and flourish too. What they do well is good enough to build upon successfully. The sesame noodles made from zucchini, for example, offered a nice contrast in texture to crisp carrot and celery. The almond Thai sauce was not too thick or sweet. Little nori dumplings were sort of interesting, though their nutty, garlicky, bright green paste was a touch too dense. The best part about a salad (a bit steep at $9) was, tellingly, the sun-cooked tomatoes. They were tender, glistening, sharp, and sour-sweet with a nice chewiness. And though the in-house mushroom-grower — featuring wet clumps of bacterial sawdust — looks depressing, the shiitake on the salad were tender and delicious. The "cheese caprice" — dense, tangy, yellow little pucks propped on slices of tomato — were not bad. Served next to a small salad in a cup made from cucumber, it was the best-looking dish.

But there are things to improve. In the smallish sea veggie shiitake roll, the bitter collard wrap and seaweed aroma overwhelmed the other flavors. The mushrooms also get a bit lost in a too-sweet marinade when featured in an "Emma Goldman" sandwich, which replaces bread with two circles of wettish undercooked tortilla. But the Goldman was better than the veggie-ball sub. Between two slices of dryish bread sit two small piles of diced-up seeds and nuts barely held together by some sort of paste. The uncooked herbs impart a slightly metallic aftertaste. The "sundried tomato and basil marinara" that topped it looked and tasted more like a sprinkling of diced fresh tomato.

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