Eat it raw

Ecopolitan makes the uncooked comfortable

Lots of folks would rather go barefoot in January than eat dinner in an all-vegan, all-organic, all-raw restaurant. And yet, Ecopolitan, which is just such a place, has not only survived but thrived for five years in its well-worn brick building on Lyndale Avenue. The loyal clientele, which fills tables inside and out, is the first sign that something interesting is happening there — something more than platters of celery and carrot sticks.

Cooling the fever

If you’re worried about what you’ll find at a raw food restaurant, Ecopolitan’s menu is like a cold hand on your fevered brow — at least at first. The menu offers familiar words like burrito, falafel and pizza to soothe the agitated raw-food rookie. Then there’s the spinach salad and lasagna; the spicy Thai noodles with baby greens; the hummus platter.

If you’re raw-food squeamish, just don’t read the fine print. The lasagna has thin slices of zucchini in place of noodles and cashew-tahini cream instead of cheese. The spicy Thai “noodles” are julienned carrots, zucchini, daikon radish and bell peppers. Pizza crusts are made from sprouted and dehydrated buckwheat.

Joe Noreen, one of the half-dozen chefs at Ecopolitan, explained why they do what they do. When food is cooked (i.e., heated above 105 degrees), he said, it loses a lot of its nutritional value. “After that, a lot of the vitamins and minerals and enzymes and a lot of nutrients begin to break down or change their molecular structure,” he said. “And trans fatty acids develop, depending on what kind of food it is.”

There are also environmental arguments in favor of a raw food diet, Noreen said — the same arguments that vegans and vegetarians use: production requires no animals, less water and fewer resources to get to your table.

Noreen was a vegan for several years before he got into raw foods. He’s eaten nothing but raw for the last five and a half years, and says he doesn’t crave even the occasional spoonful of mac and cheese.

“The first few weeks or months, it’s really difficult and it’s really emotional, realizing you’re not going to be eating these foods that used to give you so much comfort,” he said. “But once you do it for a while, your tastes and your body just sort of transform and you just don’t have the desire for that. At least that was my experience.”

Meat of the matter

At Ecopolitan, scary ingredient lists notwithstanding, a lot of effort goes into making food taste like the real thing — a.k.a., its cooked namesake. The tostadas — one of the most popular items on the menu — come to the table piled high, drizzled with hot sauce and sprinkled with cilantro; the variegated crazy quilt of red, green, purple and white is trimmed with guacamole and salsa. It doesn’t look scary.

And it doesn’t taste scary. One of the things that makes a tostada good to eat is the mess of textures and flavors that get all mixed up in your mouth: crisp lettuce, smooth beans, silky cheese. Ecopolitan’s tostada hits the mark — without beans, cheese or a tortilla. It’s crunchy and creamy, tangy and hot; the peppers in the salsa snap; the guac tingles with lime and garlic. You might even start looking around for a Pacifico.

The magic’s in the prep, explained Noreen. The “sour cream” is made from cashews that are soaked and then ground in a blender. “They’re the best nuts for creamy foods,” he said.

Ecopolitan’s “taco meat” is really sprouted lentils, portabello mushrooms and carrots ground together, dehydrated and then rehydrated to a crumbly texture. The “taco shell” is a paste of ground flax and sunflower seeds, onion and cayenne that’s dehydrated till crisp.

It’s good; it’s also inventive as hell. And that is, no doubt, what’s garnered Ecopolitan a steady stream of patrons: creating raw food dishes that replicate the comfort we’re used to from cooked cuisine.