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Reviews of vegan restaurants Taste of Eden, Loving Hut, Vida de Cafe

ST. PETERSBURG

Remember when veganism was a punch line for joke-telling carnivores? These days it is estimated that 33 percent of the population eats mostly vegetables, 5 percent is strictly vegetarian and 2.5 percent is vegan. Still a fairly small percentage, but folks who eschew all animal products are growing in clout, with lots of celeb vegans helping to raise awareness (yes, Gwyneth Paltrow and Alicia Silverstone, but also Al Gore and Bill Clinton). Rationales for taking the plunge vary from animal rights issues to environmental concerns to health choices, so it should come as no surprise that the style and focus of vegan restaurants varies dramatically.

In the Tampa Bay area, there are restaurants that slide liberally from vegetarian to dishes sans eggs and dairy; there are those that go heavy on textured vegetable protein and seitan to simulate the toothsomeness of animal proteins; and there are those that take things even further, serving food that is "raw" and never scoots past the 118 degrees said to cause detrimental chemical changes to foods.

One of the newest additions also happens to be one of the most exciting. Taste of Eden Bistro opened in a charming converted house in Brandon toward the end of April. Owners Sherry and David Orcutt are hardly newbies on the local vegetarian scene, however. They have owned Hallelujah Aces Lifestyle Center in Plant City for 11 years, teaching a vegan diet since 2002 when David was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and the couple embarked on a vegan diet themselves. Active as guest speakers at events like the popular annual Tampa Bay Veg Fest, they lean heavily toward raw, something that a single visit proves to be anything but abstemious or kooky.

Just try a slice of citrusy cheezecake ($8), its crust a satisfying mix of ground nuts, its filling a creamy mix of ground cashews, coconut oil, dates, lemon juice and other wholesome stuff, all of it accented by a pool of sweet-tart berry coulis and deliciously able to stand up to full-sugar, full-animal-fat desserts elsewhere.

There are salads, sure (the curry-inflected kale salad capped off with a tomato bruschetta is a winner; $7.25 for a plenty-big half size), but the raw entrees are the things that will stump the rookie: How do they do it? A plate of zucchini "spaghetti" (long raw zucchini coils that frequently stand in for noodles at raw restaurants) gets a ladle of rich tomato marinara (also raw) bolstered by pine nuts ($9), the cumulative effect brightly flavored but still homey and satisfying. A spin on manicotti ($10.50) marries essentially the same ingredients, layered with a pine nut "ricotta" as a binder.

My favorite not-raw dish was a sturdy grilled sandwich on crusty gluten-free bread stacked with piquant sauerkraut, plush avocado, onion, Dijon and Thousand Island, the right juxtaposition of textures and assertive flavors to make this Reuben ($9.50) seem a welcome alternative to pastrami or corned beef. And while a bracing shot of raw barley juice ($3 for 2 ounces) may not be for everybody, a range of fresh juices and smoothies (most around $6), served by a knowledgeable and enthusiastic small staff, definitely fall into Edenic category.

In Tampa not far from the University South Florida, a longtimer goes by the eye-catching name of Loving Hut. (I'm not sure what I thought went on in there, but it wasn't vegan food.) It's part of a worldwide chain of more than 200 restaurants, about 40 of them in the United States, all the inspiration of Supreme Master Ching Hai in Vietnam. But before I launch into describing the bill of fare, I must get something off my chest: In a 90-minute meal at Loving Hut recently, a new-agey instrumental version of Afrojack's Take Over Control played. The. Entire. Time. It haunts me still.

Despite the singular musical focus, the Loving Hut menu is vast, with dishes that simulate pork, chicken, shrimp and such in fairly convincing arrangements of soy protein and vegan nuggets and patties. A number of dishes have a Chinese focus, from a workhorse sweet and sour to kung pao (both $7.95) and skinny little vermicelli-stuffed spring rolls ($1.50 for two). Anything in green on the menu is organic, and gluten-free options are indicated.

Under new management, the restaurant space itself looks a bit tired, with menus a little frayed around the edges. Still, the soups alone make it worth a visit (all $3.50 small, $6.45 large), from a smooth puree of organic red lentils to an organic potato kale with a lush, creamy, mushroomy broth.

Vida de Cafe is another go-to spot for raw food aficionados, but also unlikely to win any beauty contests. The tidy, no-frills box of a room has been here for five years about a half-block from the beach in Pass-a-Grille. Owner Kristy Williamson has maintained a fairly consistent and affordable menu of raw entrees, side dishes and salads, as well as juices and smoothies, with the occasional raw cooking class or special event.

As a lunch spot it can be tricky for someone eager to get back to work, because service tends to be very slow. To be fair, this may be because many dishes and complex juice combinations can be fairly labor-intensive. Take the "ultimate green" ($7), a stunningly satisfying juice blend of spinach, parsley, ginger, lemon and apples: tangy, spicy, quenching.

There's quite a bit of overlap between the menu at Taste of Eden and Vida de Cafe, but two dishes stand out as exceptional at Vida: A marinated mushroom tostada ($8) features lush guacamole bedded down on an air-dried onion "tortilla" (remember, no cooking), which in turn is topped with vinegary portobello slices, greens and cabbage, red bell peppers, a drizzle of pico de gallo and chipotle ranch I could have done without. And the other was an ingenious spin on sushi ($15), with raw seaweed enfolding a ginger almond puree, spinach, carrot shreds and avo, served prettily with a dipper of salty-umami sesame sauce. It's the kind of dish that will seem familiar to any sushi lover, but leaves one feeling bathed in a halo of well-being.

Sound like hyperbole? Even a couple days of juicing and raw food can make one giddily enthusiastic about the possibilities — of course, this is with someone else cooking. A lot of this food requires a good deal of knowledge and "raw" elbow grease, regardless of the rationale for doing so.

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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