Toronto’s newest raw food boutique, Belmonte Raw, proves dishes below 47° can still taste great
Outside Belmonte Raw, Leslieville’s new organic, vegan, sugar-free, gluten-free, dairy-free raw food restaurant, a trio of wiry-lean women with dignifiedly graying hair and yoga mats tucked under their arms examined the menu posted in the window: hulled hemp and kale salads, lucuma and camu camu smoothies, something called a sun burger made with pumpkin and clover sprouts. In their patchouli wake, I entered the restaurant while attempting (unsuccessfully) to conceal my huge leather purse under my trench coat.
The space is small—just 16 seats—and cute, with wood slab tables and motivational directives scrawled on the walls: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you imagine,” it says on the mirror across from me. While sipping my $9 Happiness juice out of a Mason jar, I overheard the owner, Carol Belmonte, chatting elatedly with another diner about juice detoxes. She offers a menu of home-delivered organic juice feasts (instead of fasts, because raw foodists prefer to emphasize abundance over abstinence) that start at $90 for one day and max out at $1,960 for a month.
The raw food diet has traditionally attracted vegans, dietary iconoclasts and the sanctimoniously puritanical. In books and on blogs, raw proponents eschew the word “diet” for “lifestyle,” “revolution” or “philosophy” because raw foodism encompasses ethical, environmental and spiritual convictions. Only organic, unprocessed fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds are allowed—none of them heated above 47° C, the temperature at which, raw foodists believe, plants start to lose nutrients and digestive enzymes. The strict regime, the theory goes, is better for the body, the animals and the planet.
The many constraints of the diet force a creative, painstaking and expensive style of food preparation (two salads and two smoothies at Belmonte added up to $48 before tax and tip). Raw food chefs can’t fall back on deep-frying for crispy texture or on cheese or foie gras for richness. They blend, marinate, sprout, dehydrate, grind and ferment their organic ingredients.
Belmonte Raw is the latest and most ambitious among a handful of places serving exclusively raw food in the city. In 2002, Live Organic Food Bar in the Annex (Woody Harrelson’s favourite) was Toronto’s only proper raw restaurant (appetizers, biodynamic wine, table service). It was soon followed by Rawlicious (which now has four locations), Raw Aura in Mississauga and Cruda in the St. Lawrence Market. In 2009, Nature’s Emporium, a 50,000-square-foot health food store in Newmarket, hired a raw chef and partnered with a sports nutritionist to help Maple Leafs like Luke Schenn and Mike Komisarek integrate raw food into their diets.
These places often riff on cooked dishes. Their menus are laced with trompe l’oeils: spaghetti bolognese made with heavy, nut-based “neat balls” and zucchini noodles that leave a pool of water in the bottom of the bowl; flax quiche Lorraine without a single flavour or texture approximating the eggs, butter, pastry or joy that define quiche Lorraine; seed-crust pizzas bludgeoned with raw garlic pesto. When a plate of zucchini lasagna arrives looking just like real lasagna, your brain is hard-wired to expect hot, cheesy goodness. No matter how tasty, that first stone-cold bite is always a shock, like taking a sip of what you thought was water and realizing it’s vodka in the glass.
Instead of counting calories or carbs, proponents of the raw food philosophy consider the so-called life force energy of food. The more living enzymes in a thing, the more vitality it provides the body. It’s a perspective that questions the foods 99 per cent of us blithely consume, and that can easily transform those foods into sources of anxiety: Is my water dead or alive? (The water you get from fruit and veggies is, apparently, alive; the kind you get from the tap is dead.) Is chocolate a drug? Is cheese a carcinogen? Some subgroups even abstain from fruit because of its high sugar content. Others swear by an all-fruit diet. On the Meetup message board for Raw Food Toronto, a 786-member online group that gathers monthly for raw potlucks, one host banned fruit at her dinner, sparking a maelstrom of comments from appalled fruitarians.
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The health claims range from the mundane (increase energy, lose weight, have rapturous bowel movements) to the miraculous (eradicate diabetes in 21 days, shrink malignant tumours, reverse the aging process, cure infertility). And, inevitably, corporeal claims slide into spiritual ones—transubstantiation through kale chips and cashew paste. Some raw advocates believe Jesus was the original raw foodist, quoting him as having said: “Live only by the fire of life, and prepare not your food with the fire of death, which kills your food, your bodies and your souls also.” Live Organic Food Bar serves E3 Live, a drink made of blue-green algae and 70-odd nutrients, which promises, according to the menu, to “balance your emotions” and “focus your mind.” For $4 an ounce, it’s much cheaper and easier to swallow than psychoanalysis.
At a recent raw vegan expo in a Bathurst Street church, I listened to devotees describe their conversionary experiences, most of which involved finding an inner peace that literally radiates from them—glowing skin, brighter eyes. If what they say is true, junk food is all that stands between us and enlightenment. It’s a seductive promise (one that fuels a multi-million-dollar detox industry), but if you’re a member of the weak-willed masses with the impulse to stuff your face with something as unholy as a brie-topped burger, that glow of serenity can look remarkably like the glow of self-righteousness.
I’m not a raw foodist (I had a difficult time assembling a leather- and wool-free outfit to wear to the raw vegan expo); however, I am an avid consumer of fruits and vegetables. Not for spiritual or health reasons, but because they happen to taste really good—a fact many chefs in this city seem to have forgotten. Over the last few years, our food groups have narrowed to charcuterie, sandwiches, thin-crust pizzas and burgers. Ham hocks hang from restaurant ceilings as decor accents and tributes to our unrestrained meat worship. I have scrounged menus for vegetable dishes, sometimes settling for cream-doused kale or bacon-fried rapini, which are both delicious, but in a cream-and-bacon kind of way. Even The Hogtown Vegan, the new Christie Pitts restaurant, favours deep-fried soy “unchicken burgers” and crispy-fried tofu “wings” over veggies.
At her new raw boutique, Carol Belmonte treats vegetables with as much reverence as a charcuterie chef would a slab of prosciutto
Belmonte Raw is one of the few raw vegan places where vegetables get to be vegetables. Carol Belmonte adopted a raw food diet five years ago, while studying with a yogi in Rishikesh, India. Inspired by the country’s exotic produce, she shopped the markets, made salads and sold them to the other yogis. For the last three years, she’s been running a catering business, preparing raw lunches for Bay Street corporate events and hosting private dinners with tasting menus and juice pairings. At her new raw boutique, as she calls it, she treats vegetables with as much reverence as a charcuterie chef would a slab of prosciutto.
Her raw burrito, for example, consists of a thick collard leaf wrapped around ground chili-spiced walnuts, jicama, tomatoes, red peppers and sprouts. She serves it with Mylar-thin dehydrated ground-kernel corn chips that are crispier than any deep-fried tortilla I’ve had, as well as freshly chopped salsa, cilantro-flecked guacamole and a cashew-based concoction called Chipotle Not So Cheeze. The name didn’t bode well (the only time cheese should ever be spelled with a Z is on the side of a Cheez Whiz jar), but the dip was creamy and full of jalapeño flavour. The server also delivered a tiny tray of smoked black salt, pink Himalayan rock salt and bee pollen, which, she said, helps the body absorb the food’s minerals. It sounded intolerably precious, but it tasted astonishingly good—and not just for a raw vegan dish. Without grease to mask the flavours or cooking to meld them, the taste of each ingredient was vivid and distinct.
After lunch, there were dairy-free, gluten-free, sugar-free peanut butter truffles topped with gold leaf for $4.50 each. They’re expensive, Belmonte explained, because the organic ingredients are Fairtrade. She even negotiates the price of the raw vanilla beans directly with a farmer in Mexico, paying him generously “so he can live a very nice life.” By the alchemical magic of peanut butter and agave nectar, the truffle was rich and velvety. The meal was surprisingly filling. When I confessed as much to the server, she said, “Don’t worry, it’s all fibre. It’ll go right through you.” You don’t hear that in restaurants very often.
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