Long gone are the days when the term “health food” meant bland textures, weird grainy fake meat tastes, funky faux cheeses or a million variations on the veggie and sprout sandwich on cardboard stiff wheat bread. Thanks to the resurgence of macrobiotic concepts, the superfoods explosion, the contemporary plant-based and whole foods movements, and our general continuing enlightenment surrounding the importance of tending to that internal stove inside our guts that is our digestive system, health food has slowly crept up the culinary ladder as a viable competitor in the foodie world. Not only are many noted chefs exploring vegetarian dishes to co-star on menus alongside meat dishes, but some chefs are making a mark by focusing totally on more healthy fare that’s elevated for a sophisticated foodie audience. Matthew Kenney is a prime example of a chef who has turned raw food principles into some of the best tasting gourmet dishes I’ve ever eaten. When I lived in Venice Beach, I made it a point to walk to his Santa Monica restaurant (sadly now defunct) weekly for a plate of exquisitely stacked raw lasagna, or kelp pad Thai, which carried so much of a flavor punch that I was certain I could give up the fattier, meatier, carb-heavy alternatives if I were forced to make a choice. It has been exciting for me to search for and discover food of this sort and it has been sadly too few times that I have succeeded.
The Cute Gardener, who is not as big of a fan of this type of cuisine as I am, did a very sweet thing for my birthday this year. He took me to Baroo, a relatively new restaurant in Los Angeles that has been getting rave reviews for its largely vegetarian menu (of under ten dishes at any given time) and use of fermentation. Their most unusual dish Noorook even boasts the use of the latest trendy Koji (a steamed rice with koji-kin mold spores cultivated into it), which I was dying to try because of its reputation for being an authentic source of umami.
I was also interested in a Chef who would name his restaurant after a bowl that Buddhist monks are allowed to possess and use for their meals until their last breaths. It brought to mind the time I sat sesshin with a group of Buddhists for three days straight in my twenties, during which we kept completely silent and did nothing but meditate for eight hours a day, only breaking every couple hours to run in a circle around the room to get some circulation, or at noon and night to eat. I had to learn a complex ritual of eating called Oryoki that required setting out my bowl, and a precise way to receive food, eat and wash my implements that emphasized presence, respect for the sacred and grace. I thought about this as we drove to the tiny, stark white space located within a minimalist and ordinary strip mall and bellied up to the tiny, unpretentious counter to taste five dishes lovingly prepared in front of us by Chef Kwang Uh and his team. I wanted to give each taste that same respect.
Respect was indeed due, for the meal was not only extremely creative and satisfyingly healthy, each dish was jam packed with so many layers of complex ingredients and juxtaposing textures that I realized with each bite that there was no way I would be able to find, or even make at home, food like this. I had my own little religious experience while sitting there.
An example of what I mean:
Celeriac pasta: Handmade pasta with celery roots, celery crudité with pickled mustard seeds, celery ash and crispy celeriac chips.
Asian fever salad with a sous vide egg: Basmati rice, lemongrass and coconut foam, Asian-inspired veg mix, crispy shrimp chip, heirloom cherry tomatoes and line supreme.
Noorook (Koji): Job’s tears, kamut and faro, roasted koji beet crème, concentrated kombu dashi, toasted seeds, macadamia nut, finger lime and rose onion pickle.
Bibim salad: Grains with oat, quinoa & bulgur, vegetable crudité w/fennel, celery, asparagus, baby radish, heirloom carrot, toasted pumpkin and sunflower seeds, gochujang, san marzano tomato dressing, herb coulis, passion fruit powder, baby kale and Asian pear.
To wash it all down? A gloriously housemade Tepache with fermented cherry juice.
Of course, after the heavenly birthday meal, we drove to a burger joint to feed the CG who considered Baroo’s lighter portion sizes and fare mere appetizers.