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Review: Cider Press Cafe proves vegan-raw food can be vibrant and exciting

The Three Amigos at the Cider Press Café in St. Petersburg is a trio of dehydrated corn tortillas with a walnut and sweet potato filling topped with cabbage, guac, poblano cream and other goodies.
Published Sep. 28, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG

One of the Tampa Bay area's rock star chefs is overseeing a kitchen where she never lifts a frying pan or flips something on the grill. Is Patrice Murphy (Pearl in the Grove, Edison, the Refinery) getting lazy in her new gig at the Cider Press Café? • Hardly. • She is at the helm of the second location of a popular Naples vegan-raw restaurant owned by Roland Strobel and Johan Everstijn. What just a few years ago would have been a head-scratcher, raw food has taken hold here. Beginning with Leafy Greens in 2008, and Vida de Cafe in Pass-a-Grille, the now-closed Taste of Eden in Brandon and others more recently, the idea of entirely vegetable-based "cooking" (I use that term loosely because no food creeps past 117 degrees, the point at which helpful enzymes are killed) doesn't spook too many folks now.

There is sleight of hand. Breads are made of dehydrated gruels (not a pretty word, but there you have it), taco shells from flax and sunflower seeds, noodles from kelp and spiraled zucchini. There are cream sauces with no cream, lasagnas with no pasta, and eggplant and coconut bacons with no, well, bacon. This food is hard to make — it takes time and ingredients cost a lot. Which is why my assessment is this: Cider Press is amazing for dinner and fairly expensive and time consuming for downtown office workers on a lunch break. (The same menu serves lunch and dinner.)

For the first bunch of weeks of its life, the St. Pete location didn't have beer and wine, which was fine because nonalcoholic beverages are impressive: There's a lavender lemonade that is striking ($5), a range of winey, intriguing kombuchas ($3-$4), smoothies that are so good you're almost guaranteed brain freeze (best one: Chocolate Seduction, heavy on the banana and with an interesting smokiness, not too sweet; $9) and a lineup of smart cold-pressed juices ($10) that I've pretty much worked my way through. These are expensive beverages, but rationalize it by thinking of how much you'd spend on a great cocktail.

And like a cocktail, raw food has the power to put you in an altered state. Sure, it could be the placebo effect, but a shared order of coconut spring rolls (ribbons of coconut rolled around kelp and zucchini with a sweet Thai chili dipping sauce; $11) and then a generous bowl of spiral-cut zucchini and kelp "pad Thai" dotted with cabbage, pineapple and savory/umami tamari almonds, all of it glossed in a sweet-spicy tamarind sauce ($15), and I feel a little more spring in my step.

The design of Cider Press, in a space that previously housed the short-lived Sunspot Cafe, is fresh, contemporary and a fitting setting for what Murphy and team are sending out of the kitchen. It's got glossy concrete floors, heavy use of bamboo and these dusty aquamarine banquettes that have me rethinking my home color scheme. The service staff feels just right, a mix of vegan-raw zealots but also some omnivores who seem surprised by how enthusiastic they are about the food.

Together they hit the right tone of inclusivity, with an educational bent that never seems preachy. You can enjoy an order of Three Amigos, a trio of thick and sturdy dehydrated corn tortillas with a walnut and sweet potato filling topped with cabbage, guac, pico de gallo, poblano cream and some seriously spicy pickled jalapenos ($18) even if carne asada is your regular go-to (okay, its pile of riced jicama was a harder sell, even with its familiar Mexican spice palette). In several visits the only thing I winced at was the "almond croutons" on a Caesar salad ($8 small, $12 large), which tasted like packing peanuts made out of alum.

I defy anyone woozy about vegan food to not enjoy a bowl of Seminole corn chowder ($8.50, cup $5), the essence of summer corn with a lush texture courtesy of a cashew buttercream. And desserts, from a stunning bananas Foster ($10) with a magical non-ice cream and rich caramel, to a classical French glossy chocolate ganache tart ($8), are the opposite of abstemious.

Murphy — big personality, mile-high dreads — has been a meat enthusiast in previous gigs. I'm not sure if she has any pork-related tattoos (Why do so many chefs have pork-related tattoos? Why not, say, lamb?), but certainly Cider Press represents a tidal shift in her professional focus.

One of the great things about cooking is that you can explore new areas, annex new flavors and techniques into your repertoire. I'd say her exploration of vegan-raw certainly proves that animal-free food can be vibrant and exciting.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.

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