By Laura Reiley
TAMPA—Not just vegetarian, but 100 percent vegan. Not just vegan, but much of the menu upholds the tenets of the raw food diet, where nothing is heated above 110 to 120 degrees, which keeps beneficial enzymes alive. Still, this funky outpost in a slightly sketchy neighborhood is not at all about asceticism.
At Grass Root Organic Restaurant, diners can dive into platters of "live spaghetti with treatballs," raw sushi, exotic wraps and lush miso "sipp" with sliced coconut noodles. Hardly the food of deprivation and hippie delirium, dishes are colorful, flavorful and satisfying, even for the unreconstructed carnivore.
Talk to owners Jenyce Silverstein or Spencer and Sabrina Sterling long enough and you begin to wonder if a diet like this might be worth exploring. Jenyce, Spencer's mom, was a longtime vegetarian. Brown rice, veggie stir-fry — you know the stuff. When Spencer asked her to move to Tampa and help with their new restaurant in 2006, she took the plunge and went raw. "I used to have high blood pressure, I had arthritis," she says. "The raw food has been so good for me physically."
I went to lunch the first time prepped for a medicinal, eat-your-vegetables experience. No one would say the service is fast, but the foods that slowly made their way to my table for the next two hours were nothing short of miraculous. Sabrina's Favorite Sandwich ($7), and mine too, brought a stunning wrap-style onion bread (get this: not cooked, but air-dried in a dehydrator that serves to "caramelize" the onions) with raw "hummus" (made of zucchini and Brazil nuts with raw tahini, garlic and lemon), avocado, sprouts and something called sheeze (a cheese made of raw cashews). Sounding kooky? It's delicious and indulgent, defying all health food pitfalls.
The live spaghetti ($13.50) is equally lush, spirals of zucchini "noodles" paired with mushroom-dense meatballs and two sauces, one a beguiling "rawsome" vinaigrette. It doesn't take long to realize that "raw" doesn't mean green salads and carrot sticks, but clearly some of this food requires labor-intensive preparations. A kale salad, $8, is "massaged" to relax the fibers in the greens, resulting in a dish that seems sauteed but with brighter flavors. Even the non-raw vegan food has vibrancy and panache, from the rice-paper rolled sprout wraps ($7 for 2) served with a sweet/salty shoyu dipping sauce, to a sturdy veggie burger ($6).
Spencer is the juice master, turning out sophisticated combos that pair elegantly with the food. I had two favorites: a spicy combo of carrot, apple and ginger ($6) and a scary-green sludge called the Incredible Hulk ($7.75) that tastes of exotic fruits and just-mowed grass. If anything has raw power, it's the Hulk.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The St. Petersburg Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.