August 7, 2002
You Hear About the Chef Who Doesn’t Use a Stove?
by FLORENCE FABRICANT
LARKSPUR, Calif. – In the wrong setting, undercooked food can earn restaurants a demerit. At Roxanne’s, about a half-hour’s drive north of San Francisco, where the menu offers fare that is not just undercooked but raw and vegetarian, it’s drawing improbable crowds. And despite raw food’s sprouts-and-seaweed reputation, calls for reservations are coming from some of the most sophisticated names in the world of, well, cooking.
“It’s hard to imagine a kind of food nobody has ever done,” said Marion Cunningham, the cookbook author. “I was very curious about it. And until you try it you have no clue.”
Roxanne Klein, 38, Roxanne’s chef and co-owner, serves food in which no ingredient is heated beyond 118 degrees (lest its nutrients, and especially its supposedly energy-giving and age-deterring enzymes, be destroyed). It is also vegan. Ms. Klein uses no animal products of any kind in her cooking, not even dairy and eggs.
“I thought her food was remarkable,” Ms. Cunningham said. Others agree. In the eight months since its opening, the restaurant has ascended to the top of the “must try” list of many chefs, food writers and restaurant buffs, not only in California but increasingly, as word has spread, in other parts of the country. Glowing reviews in the local press, as well as in national magazines like Wine Spectator and Gourmet, have stretched the wait for a reservation to over a month.
“I loved it,” said Hubert Keller, the chef and owner of Fleur de Lys in San Francisco. “I thought it was exciting. There’s real technique, meticulous presentation and taste.”
Ms. Klein opened Roxanne’s with her husband, Michael Klein, 47. He is a retired telecommunications entrepreneur and an environmental advocate. Ms. Klein said that any profit the restaurant made would go to charities and environmental causes. “We have more than enough money for ourselves, and we want to give something back,” she said.
Roxanne’s is a spacious and elegant 62-seat room with chairs and banquettes covered in dark blue plush. The design calls for wearing something dressier than Birkenstocks and a hemp shift. Tables are set with Frette linen and heavy silver.
The food is beautiful, often dazzlingly so, presented on Bernardaud porcelain and paired with wines poured into Riedel crystal stemware from 250 selections assembled with the help of Larry Stone, one of the country’s best sommeliers.
The chef Bradley Ogden, who owns the Lark Creek Inn, next door to Roxanne’s, said he was skeptical about Roxanne’s at first. “But relative to all the hype,” he said, “she’s doing a wonderful job with the ingredients, the execution and the presentation.”
Steven Raichlen, the Miami-based food writer and grilling expert, agreed. He called Ms. Klein’s food “breathtaking.” Ms. Klein’s philosophy of cooking, Mr. Raichlen did add, “runs counter to the history of human development, the hearth and all that.”
Ron Siegel, who is the chef at Masa’s in San Francisco, dined at Roxanne’s and said that other people liked it more than he did. “I wouldn’t go back,” he said. “There are plenty of other places that serve interesting food.” Mr. Ogden said that sometimes people came into his restaurant from Ms. Klein’s, feeling hungry.
The menu at Roxanne’s is written in a language that almost anyone who dines out can understand and find tempting; it is also extremely wide-ranging. Lasagna. Pizza. Ratatouille. Tortilla soup. Falafel. Pad Thai. Banana split. But Ms. Klein has given this vocabulary a new, often bizarre meaning.
A vegan diet that permits cooked food can include grains and legumes. Not at Roxanne’s. Even staples like potatoes and eggplant are excluded because they must be cooked to be
edible and palatable. Ms. Klein even avoids many kinds of mushrooms, which she originally served but which she found often need cooking to be digestible.
So how does she concoct “ice cream” for a sundae or the “noodles” for pad Thai and lasagna? What’s in those “croutons” scattered over the Caesar salad and the “cheese” dusted on top? How can there be “rice” in the “sushi” or in the filling for the Middle Eastern dolmas?
Creamy nut milks – made by soaking raw cashews, pine nuts and almonds overnight then puréeing them – is one of the answers. So too is Ms. Klein’s parsnip cheese, for which she grates parsnips and then presses them to the consistency of Parmesan. She uses the silken meat of young green coconut to make her noodles, and richly flavored tomato water in a great number of her dishes.
“I’ve done a lot of experimenting,” Ms. Klein said. She is the co-author, with Charlie Trotter, of “Raw,” a cookbook devoted to her techniques that is to be published by Ten Speed Press next spring. Mr. Trotter, the Chicago chef, has been one of her biggest promoters and was responsible for her association with Mr. Stone, the sommelier.
“I decided to use familiar terms for most of my dishes so people would understand the concept even though the ingredients and the preparation are different,” Ms. Klein continued. “My main goal has been to make food that can be enjoyed on its own terms. I wouldn’t serve anything that didn’t measure up to my standards for a sensual, fine-dining experience.”
Ms. Klein said that making desserts was especially frustrating. “I love pastry cream and ice cream,” she said. “I thought about what I could use instead.”
With young coconut and nut milks, she has come up with smooth ice creams and parfaits gorgeously aswirl with fruit purées, chocolate and honey that are as delectable as anything made with dairy, and among her most successful creations.
Nobody would be fooled by the paper-thin ribbons of raw zucchini standing in for pasta in the lasagna. But in pad Thai the strands of young coconut have a blandness and velvety texture that’s surprisingly noodlelike. As for rice, Ms. Klein uses parsnips. “Their graininess works in a ricelike way,” she said.
There were times, in the course of a tasting menu I had last month, that cooking would have helped. A stuffed Anaheim chili, for example, was moderately hot, raw and crunchy. But had it been softened by charring, it would have made a better package for its filling. Her so-called crackers and pastries made with ground flax in a dehydrator are acceptable at best; their taste reminded me, frankly, of something a hippie might pull from a well-worn backpack. And as enjoyable as the meal was in summer, I wondered how I might like it in New York in January, with the wind chill at minus 10.
When Robert Wallace, a publishing executive and screenwriter, heard about the restaurant, he said: “I like to go to restaurants when I’m feeling too lazy to cook. I don’t like it when the chef feels the same way.”
But no cooking does not mean no work. Ms. Klein’s food takes more time and effort than stirring a risotto or roasting a rack of lamb.
“I love to cook, and I understand how complicated her recipes are,” said Helena Sears, a tour operator in San Francisco who lives near the restaurant and eats there at least once a week. “I’m not a vegetarian, but I think she’s a genius. Her food is so fresh, so creative and so different from anything else. I just hope the hype dies down so it will be easier to get a reservation.” Soon she will be able to buy Roxanne’s food to go from the adjacent takeout shop under construction.
The kitchen at Roxanne’s may not have a stove, but it is filled with high-tech gadgets like dehydrators, carefully calibrated warming ovens, frothers, high-speed Vita-Mix blenders, finely honed slicers and $3,000 Pacojet frozen-food churners. There’s an industrial hydraulic juicer that presses fruits and vegetables without breaking the cell walls, as juicers usually do; the extracted juices never separate.
My meal began with a trio of vibrantly colored and flavored amuse-bouche juices that had come from this machine. They were unforgettable little sips.
Ms. Klein’s culinary high-wire act begins on this note of simplicity, but it can end on the opposite end of the spectrum, with an optional $9 “cheese” course: a plate of smoked almond cheese and herb-marinated cashew cheese served with garnishes like olives, honey and dates. Ms. Klein uses yogurt bacteria to ferment the cheeses.
The restaurant offers a two-course dinner for $29, with additional first courses for $9 each and desserts for $8. The wine list emphasizes full-bodied whites and light reds to complement dishes that have complex, often forceful seasonings without the mouth-filling intensity of meat.
Those who are determined to eat only raw food would never permit some of the seasonings Ms. Klein uses in her food. Maple syrup and fine balsamic vinegar are both made by heating the ingredients.
“I’m not compulsive about all of this,” Ms. Klein said. “I like the way maple syrup sweetens because it’s better for you than refined sugar and not as aggressive as honey. And good balsamic has an intensity you need to add a finish to some dishes.”
Ms. Klein’s more permissive approach stood her well during a recent trip to Italy with her husband, she said. The Kleins, who have been on a raw vegan diet for many years, ate pasta and sampled some other cooked foods during their sojourn.
“I’m a chef,” Ms. Klein said. “How could I not?”
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company