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Unexpectedly underwhelmed at Roxanne's

Wednesday, Jan 1 2003
I put some thought into where I wanted to eat my first review meal in the Bay Area. Should it be someplace brand-new, someplace venerable, someplace that had recently reimagined itself? Someplace ethnic, someplace cooking comfort food? Someplace high, someplace low? My friend Janice thought I should write about Zuni Cafe, knowing that it was the local restaurant I'd mention, reflexively, as one of my favorites (right up there with Campanile in Los Angeles, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and Gramercy Tavern in New York). Janice's son Chester, my 10-year-old godchild with the amazing palate, thought I should try his favorite sushi place in Cole Valley. My parents were eager to see what Hubert Keller was doing at the newly reopened Fleur de Lys.

But when a certain restaurant occurred to me, I knew instantly that it was the right one. All my friends who were interested in food, in L.A. and N.Y. as well as in the Bay Area, were dying to eat there. My parents and I had talked about it as a possibility for a meal with my friend Mary when we were up for the July Fourth weekend, but we couldn't get a reservation (we made do with Chez Panisse, Jardinière, and Memphis Minnie's). We'd even considered it for my birthday dinner during a flying visit in October, but it was too short notice, and we ended up at Rivoli.

The perfect spot? Roxanne's, the bountifully publicized raw-foods restaurant in Larkspur. I managed to get a reservation for 10 (family and friends who'd been consulted felt entitled), and set about trying to educate myself about raw food in the weeks before the big day -- beyond my own affection for carrots and celery and other less-crude crudités.

I learned from RAW, The UNCook Book: New Vegetarian Food for Life (by Juliano, who once had a raw-foods restaurant in S.F.) that raw cuisine meant "living" food -- i.e., fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, roots, and seeds (vegan, too; no dairy). You could chop, blend, purée, juice, dehydrate, or pulverize it, explained Juliano, but not subject it to heat over 120 degrees, because then its nourishing enzymes die.

Or something. (There seems to be some confusion about that heat thing. In press materials for Roxanne's, I'd read that they never heat anything over 118 degrees. In another piece, it was 115. And in a breathless account of Donna Karan's recent weight loss in the January 2003 Vogue, I noted that her "Life Food" chef, Jill Pettijohn, says, "[N]ever heat anything over 108 degrees." I guess the jury is still out.)

Anyway, I was way more excited about eating Roxanne Klein's food than Juliano Brotman's (his four full-page recipes for guacamole was pushing it a little). She had the imprimatur of several decidedly unraw chefs -- Jeremiah Tower, Joyce Goldstein, and Bradley Ogden -- given that she'd cooked at Stars, Square One, and the Lark Creek Inn. Most impressive, the gifted and flavor-mad Charlie Trotter had been so convinced by Roxanne's food that he was co-authoring a raw-foods cookbook with Klein.

So the 10 of us arrived on a rainy, wind-swept night, on a Larkspur street that already had pleasant gastronomic connotations for me (Janice, Chester, and Adam, the père de famille, had treated me to perfect lobster rolls and clam chowder at Ogden's Yankee Pier down the block a year ago). Roxanne's menu says that it exists at "the intersection of sensual flavors, healthy lifestyle and ecological sustainability," but I wouldn't enter that into MapQuest.

If you didn't know that the place was solar-powered, that the fixtures were fashioned of recycled glass, that the linens were organic, Roxanne's would look like a slightly underdecorated (exposed brick walls, not the height of chic) restaurant with especially nice Bernardaud china. Cathy, my new roommate, wanted to poll all of us on what we'd had for lunch, as if in preparation for this new adventure; I recalled that, two days before, for Chester's birthday dinner at home, we'd feasted on an assortment of pâtés and rillettes from Cafe Rouge, followed by Adam's famous barbecued ribs and chicken.

We'd brought several bottles of wine with us, though Roxanne's has a nice wine list of its own. (The fermentation process results in a product that Roxanne still considers raw, and the restaurant's corkage fee is only $20 a bottle.) I was cheered by both the appearance and the flavor of the pretty little amuse-bouche: a twist of crunchy watermelon daikon that tasted bright, fresh, and exciting. I thought it would be the first of a roller-coaster array of equally intriguing dishes.

For a couple of courses, the disappointments -- a marinated olive and tomato pizza that might have been slightly less disappointing if it had been called a tomato tart, though the crust, made somehow from zucchini and almonds, would still have been soggy and mushy -- were outnumbered by the successes. Among the latter were tasty sushi rolls with "rice" made of pulsed parsnips and a beautiful assortment of seaweed salads familiar to habitués of Japanese restaurants, each one superb and different in texture and taste. I felt a bit of unease with the soups and salads: The tepid temperature of the former didn't bother me at all, but the spicy pumpkin soup with coconut and Thai chilies wasn't very spicy, and didn't reveal much more than pumpkin to me. I liked the small knot of avocado and corn salad in the center of the bowl of tortilla soup, itself pleasant, if not a revelation. We marveled at the croutons made from carrots adorning the Caesar salad, the cheesy "rawmesan" made from ground pine nuts blended with yeast and dried in a convection oven. But I didn't marvel at the salad itself, nor the one called "tiny mixed greens with pears, lemon and herb cheese vinaigrette, chives, and maple pecans," most of whose "tiny mixed greens" seemed to be the same romaine used for the Caesar. Here's where a raw-foods restaurant with its own forager on staff and its own 3-acre organic garden should really shine. Yet I've had much better salads -- and not just at Chez Panisse, the salad shrine, but at my own house. Or at my friend Julie's house this Thanksgiving, where the most simple dish -- a salad of tangy, sliced, crisp persimmons, sharply dressed -- provided the spark that improved everything else on our overladen plates.

I actually began feeling depressed with our main courses: the much-photographed, carefully layered lasagna terrine; a Mediterranean platter of falafel, hummus, dolmas, and Greek salad; a tamale with mole sauce; and a Thai yellow curry. I wasn't tasting bright flavors; I was searching for textural contrasts that weren't there. The curry, I thought, was a disaster, with all its vegetables cut in identical-sized dice, mixed with gluey puréed parsnips into unpleasant baby food. Beyond the discovery of clever substitutes (more parsnip "rice" in the dolmas, cashew "cheese" in the tamale), I was trying to decide if I thought the dishes tasted good all on their own, if I wanted to come back and order anything again. And over and over, my feeling was no.

I was shocked. I'd worried about a lot of things, my first week in a new place, and with reason: It had taken Pac Bell two visits to achieve a phone line that worked, and more than one person, on being introduced to me, had kindly informed me that Los Angeles was not a real city, but a suburb. But I had never anticipated not liking the food at Roxanne's. I had read too many reviews that used the word "delicious."

Perhaps the dishes suffered from expectations created by their nomenclature. Would I be less judgmental if the tamale plate had been called "Mexifiesta," if the pad thai, which Cathy thought was the worst misfire on the table, were called "Thai one on"? (Yes, the slippery coconut noodles were witty, but the entree didn't taste like pad thai -- nor did it taste especially good on its own merits.) And why call the largely tasteless ground-nut concoctions cheese? If you use less sugar than the U.S. government says you must, your jam is no longer jam but fruit spread. These were nut spreads.

The desserts (a fine apple crisp, a more-than-fine vanilla and chocolate ice cream sandwich) were much more successful than the entrees. Roxanne's permits itself the use of honey, which some vegans do not, and Valrhona chocolate, even though it roasts its cacao. Still, I liked the sections of satsuma Mandarin orange, straight from the tree, better than the slightly chalky pumpkin crème brûlée they adorned.

I was thinking, darkly, about the Emperor's new clothes, but I must admit that my brother and sister -- good cooks and gourmands both -- enjoyed their meal much more than I did. On the ride home, I blamed myself: What worse month to visit a raw-foods restaurant than December? But when leafing through some old magazines I discovered a review of Roxanne's written in August, which meant its meals had been consumed in spring and early summer, and there they were again: the tomato pizza, the lasagna, the Thai yellow curry. If it wasn't the new clothes, I thought, there was more than a whiff of the dog that talked.

About The Author

Meredith Brody


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