LIVE (258 Dupont, at Spadina, 416-515-2002) Vivacious restaurateur Jennifer Italiano is the only cook in town whose kitchen doesn't include a stove. Instead, her unique vegetarian mains and sides are completely raw. Dessert alone will convince the most skeptical of carnivores. Bonus: everything's dairy-, wheat- and preservative-free. Warning: seats four, so don't expect one of two tables without a reservation. Complete dinners for $25 per person ($15 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a shot of wheatgrass. Open Tuesday to Thursday 11 am to 7 pm, Friday 11 am to 4 pm, Saturday noon to 6 pm. Closed Sunday, Monday. Unlicensed. Cash only. Access: one step at door leads to a very small room, washrooms on another floor. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
Researching NOW's Vegetarian restaurant survey, I discovered a vegan raw food restaurant that's so impressive it deserves a solo spotlight. Here's how it happened. I'm passing what used to be Soul Juice, the now defunct Caribbean organic food spot, when I notice that the sign above the large plate glass window of the cheerful yellow storefront sports a new name - Live. That's Live as in Saturday Night Live, not "live and let live." Raw gourmet food is promised.
The last time I ran into raw food - the fruit, nuts 'n' flakes California vegan cuisine that gave us uncooked vegetable approximations of shepherd's pie made out of sprouted millet garnished with pine cone - was at a long-gone whole-foods Cabbagetown boîte located in a concrete bunker. I shudder still.
But my fear of raw food fades after a quick scan of Live's lineup of daily chalkboard specials. Looking around the bright, bright room - tall skylit ceiling, cosmic tchotchkes, on the radio BTO's Takin' Care Of Business - I also note that it seats exactly four.
Everything at Live is made with uncooked vegan ingredients: raw fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, roots and seeds. No dairy, wheat or preservatives. And though some get puréed, food-processed or dehydrated and rehydrated, nothing gets heated above 110°F/43.3°C (the nourishing enzymes in raw vegetables die at 120°F/49°C).
But isn't it just salad with more salad on the side?
You won't think so after inhaling self-taught chef Jennifer Italiano's Live It Up Lasagna (all mains $9.95, with salad), slippery noodle impersonators made from long, wide ribbons of mandolined zucchini.
Layered with convincing ricotta (basil-infused ground cashews in real life) and tossed with super-sweet, crunchy corn kernels, this delish dish comes topped with an old-school marinara sauce of intense Roma tomato pulp, minced garlic and cold-pressed olive oil. Raw.
On crisp cracker-like shards of sprouted then dehydrated buckwheat, the cook builds her namesake Pizza Italiano by spreading it with smooth guacamole, pulped sweet pepper and tomato. Stoned black kalamatas add appropriate tang. The rockin' guac also appears in Raw Like Sushi, a quartet of loosely wrapped untoasted nori sprawling with pink-rooted watercress sprigs and pungent ginger. No inept brown rice wraps these.
Though no one will ever mistake it for the real thing, Mock Salmon Salad replicates the celery-loaded greasy spoon staple with ground, creamy soaked-almond, dulse and carrot filling and nutty flaxseed pumpernickel. Briny capers and Brit-proper sliced cucumber, too.
Ground almonds and pine nuts mixed with avocado mayonnaise add up to a very believable Tuna Salad complete with more crunchy celery. Close your eyes and Sunny Side Up could be a slightly sour hummus instead of a Ryvita-ready purée of sprouted sunflower seeds, onion, garlic and raw tahini. Five bucks gets you a 16-ounce takeout tub that has a fridge life of up to a week.
All mains come with a fantastically vibrant mixed salad of near-bitter greens, halved grape tomato and sliced cuke heaped with pea shoots as well as sprouts of lentil, radish and fenugreek. The dressing? Apple-cider-scented shoyu.
But it's Italiano's awesome Rawsome desserts (all $4.50) that push Live over the top. Lightly dusted with shredded coconut, her carrot cake comes closer to perfectly textured pumpkin pie, a rich blend of carrots, apricots, raisins and ground vanilla bean on a cookie-esque crust of pulverized and honeyed almond 'n' date.
Best yet, Butterscotch Hemp Mousse comes on the same nutty base, its ethereal filling concocted of puréed cashews, soaked almonds and raw hemp. Those are real blueberries on top, though. And don't forget to à la mode any of them with a scoop of sensational ice cream made from frozen banana pulp and maple syrup.
"I'm the only fat raw-food chef I know," laughs the voluptuous Italiano, slapping her thigh. "When I start eating my desserts, there's no stopping me. Straight to the hips, baby!"
Italiano is a natural, pun intended, and insists she's not an extremist. "It's just good food," she says.
After a spell in the fashion industry, she ended up helping out at Soul Juice and, with no previous restaurant experience, got interested in the raw food phenom. Her basement experimentation has paid off. This ain't hippie health food. Live may be the most innovative kitchen in town.