The Raw Deal
The rise in popularity of raw foods is creating culinary experiences that exceed even the most adventurous diner’s imagination. Here, meet some of the innovators who helped spur the trend and the group of local chefs who are carrying the (unlit) torch.
- CategoryEat & Drink
- Written byJoshua Lurie
SUMMER MEDLEY | A fruit carpaccio with almonds, honeycomb, cacao nibs, chia seeds, lebne and edible flowers
Photographed by Shane O’Donnell | Styled by Kara Mickelson
When it comes to “raw” food, you’ll find numerous interpretations. Vegans are quick to point out that raw food means plant-based ingredients that aren’t heated above approximately 118º, thereby preserving beneficial enzymes and nutrients. For others, raw brings to mind oysters and crudo or meat preparations like tartare and carpaccio. Still others think of Hawaiian classics like poke and Japanese predilections for sushi and sashimi.
At the most basic level, fruits and vegetables are what many people think of as raw food. But for just a moment, forget about all of this—any preconceived notions—and open your mind to discovering a plethora of uncooked possibilities.
RAW ON THE RISE
When late Chicago culinary legend Charlie Trotter and co-author Roxanne Klein published their Raw cookbook in 2003, the two chefs adhered strictly to the raw, vegan definition—topping out at 117º—while applying fine dining techniques (and occasional luxury ingredients) to dishes like portobello mushroom pave with white asparagus vinaigrette.
Raw, vegan food first took hold in LA in beach cities like Santa Monica and Venice, where alternative diets are more readily embraced. Places like Juliano’s RAW and Euphoria Loves Rawvolution (both now closed) captured peoples’ attention. Matthew Kenney’s Plant Food + Wine in Venice and 118 Degrees in Tarzana (there’s that temperature again) are two of the latest restaurants to preach the gospel of raw to a growing band of acolytes.
WHEN IT COMES TO CRUDO
At Il Grano, which closed in 2015 in West LA after 18 years in business, Chef Sal Marino was an early proponent of crudo—the raw seafood preparation popular in Italy. Chef Sal, whose family also runs Marino Ristorante in Hollywood, combed fish markets, farmers markets and his backyard garden to come up with the best, most inventive preparations.
During one of my last meals at the restaurant, he served a beautiful tuna crudo with raw sliced almonds. In the past he also prepared crudo flights that rotated preparations like thin-sliced Maine sea scallop topped with yellow beet, albacore dressed with salmon roe or silky Japanese red snapper sprinkled with black pepper.
Now Denis Dello Stritto, who hails from Caiazzo, Italy, carries the torch (unlit, of course) for crudo with Culina—a modern Italian restaurant located inside The Four Seasons Beverly Hills. Culina even has a dedicated crudo bar by the entrance that prepares seasonal dishes like swordfish carpaccio with Meyer lemon, pink pepper and basil.
Another showstopper involves sea scallops with fava bean puree and luxurious black truffle.
DEEP SEA DINING
Of course one of LA’s most established raw food preparations is sushi. The South Bay has a veritable treasure trove of sushi bars, initially spurred at least partially by the need to feed homesick execs from Japanese car companies like Toyota, Nissan and Honda, which set up North American headquarters here.
Champions for righteous omakase south of LAX include Sushi Chitose in Redondo Beach, Hirose Sushi and Kantaro Sushi in Torrance, and Kanpachi in Gardena. Really, though, no corner of LA is sushi-free at this point, with other hotbeds now found in Beverly Hills and downtown.
One of the fastest growing raw trends is poke. This traditional Hawaiian dish now has more fans than ever, given the plethora of poke places that are popping up all over LA. The Hawaiian word “poke” translates to English as “to slice” or “to cut,” and the fish is normally served in cubes.
WHERE’S THE BEEF? | Steak tartare with a quail egg, caper berries, fried lotus chips and whole grain mustard
South Bay newcomers for build-your-own poke bowl shops include Jus’ Poke in Redondo Beach and Hooked Poke Market, which The Hook & Plow restaurant owners recently debuted down the hill on Hermosa Beach Pier. Both offer a choice of seafood (typically tuna or salmon) tossed with ingredients like soy sauce, sesame oil, onion and seaweed.
A short drive south, or about a 4-mile ride along Marvin Braude Bike Trail, Quality Seafood resides along Redondo Beach’s International Boardwalk. The company has roots in the Dragich family—Yugoslavian immigrants who first started fishing in Seattle—and has operated in this location since 1953.
If you’re wondering what to order at their oyster and clam bar, consider their amusing motto: “Eat Fish—Live Longer, Eat Clams—Love Longer, Eat Oysters—Last Longer.” Quality Seafood stocks more than 20 oyster varieties from around North America, which live on a sliding scale of salinity, plus 10 kinds of clams and mussels. They’ll even crack and clean live sea urchin so you can eat the creamy, orange-yellow lobes right by the water.
Jeff Jones from Quality Seafood takes a technical view of raw food but is by no means vegan. He says, “Raw is anything uncooked, or not having the protein structure changed through heat or chemical reaction. could mean fish as in sashimi, oysters which are shucked while live then eaten, or even scallops.”
However, Jeff understands the need for limits when it comes to eating raw seafood. “It makes sense for things to be eaten raw when, firstly, it is safe to do so and, secondly, when it tastes good. Some things we won’t serve raw. This is usually because it is either too risky due to a higher potential for food illness, or we know it won’t taste good and talk the customer out of it.”
For instance, fresh-caught Spanish mackerel eats beautifully raw, whereas he’d dissuade customers from eating uncooked crab and shrimp.
The South Bay also has a sizable Peruvian population, which means several eateries offer ceviches and tiraditos—two popular seafood preparations from that coastal South American country. In both cases, the fish and shellfish are unheated. But they “cook” when hit with citrus juice or leche de tigre (a piquant blend of lime juice, garlic, ginger and celery), which helps balance frequent co-stars: starchy, steamed, hominy-like choclo and sweet sliced yams.
El Rocoto in Gardena has a host of tiraditos, including a version with halibut, citrus ponzu lime and ají amarillo. The four outposts of El Pollo Inka all serve mixed ceviche with shrimp, squid, scallops and sea bass, or a simpler version that’s limited to strips of fish.
Tableware courtesy of Artistic Habitat in Redondo Beach.
SUNKEN TREASURES | Sea Bass crudo with tangerine, avocado, shishito peppers, puffed wheat, strawberry, kumquat and micro cilantro
Market-driven chefs are also finding inventive ways of presenting and plating raw fruit and vegetables. For instance, farm-to-table Chef Diana Stavaridis devotes an entire menu section to ingredients “from the garden” at Manhattan House in (you guessed it) Manhattan Beach. Her organic greens feature garden lettuces, avocados and radishes, which are all presented in their naked glory.
Each season also brings a different salad. Spring’s contribution consisted of sunflower sprouts, English peas, avocado, radish, Parmesan and lemon vinaigrette. Technically her peas are flash-cooked to soften them, but the rest of the salad gets a raw pass. Summer, fall and winter provide a whole new set of ingredients for Chef Diana to paint on her culinary canvas.
Closer to Manhattan Beach Pier, Fishing With Dynamite is the seafood-focused restaurant from Chef David LeFevre and the Simms brothers. “New-school” ceviche is a standout preparation that’s far different from what you’d find at the aforementioned Peruvian restaurants.
The dish may star rockfish and shrimp, depending on what’s in season. To start summer, accompaniments included blood orange, black plum, radish, spicy Serrano chilies, avocado and lime.
Fishing With Dynamite also features a knockout raw bar. Platters of oysters, littleneck clams, mussels and more come with sauces like yuzu kosho mayo and pico de gallo.
Orders arrive in three sizes, each with a punny name: The SS Minnow, The Queen Mary and The Mothershucker—a spectacular structure stacked with seafood that’s designed to feed five or six people. The biggest decision basically comes down to how many empty shells you’re looking to stack.
Down the street at The Arthur J, a meat-centric Mad Men-style steakhouse from Chef David and his business partners, he serves two more raw gems. Classic steak tartare comes with a quail egg, green peppercorn and rye toast. He also casts his line back into the sea to produce an impressive Japanese hamachi tartare with avocado, Thai chilies, persimmon, a puffed rice chip, cucumber and peanut—a leading example of his frequent explorations of Asian flavors.
“There is no better way to show off incredible quality seafood than in its raw state,” Chef David says. At Fishing With Dynamite, that means “the most pristine seafood available that has been sourced responsibly, handled properly and is uber-fresh.”
He applies the same principles to land-based ingredients at all of his restaurants, including Manhattan Beach Post. No matter the forum, he’s looking to “make the ingredients shine.”
What is it about raw foods that appeals so strongly to the chef? “Foods like oysters and raw meat are primal,” he says. “We just crave them! There is a lot of thought, skill and planning that goes into sourcing and serving them properly, but when it’s done right the response is profound.”