Raw Vegetarian Pizza
Near the corner of 145th and St. Nicholas, smack dab in the middle of Harlem’s Sugar Hill, there’s a Dunkin Donuts, Famous Fish (really, they’re famous) with its line of people stretching down the block and a couple of other typical Harlem take out spots. Then, there’s Raw Soul, an all natural vegan/vegetarian restaurant. When going down the hill on 145th Street you might miss the place because it’s stationed a bit below ground under a brownstone where a faded sign notes the previous location of their juice bar.
I first heard about Raw Soul at the First Voices Series panel I attended at Hue-Man Bookstore last summer. There, Lillian Butler spoke about starting a business that serves vegan and vegetarian friendly dishes containing all natural and fresh ingredients. When I first entered Raw Soul I recognized Ms. Butler immediately as her bronze dreads dangled while she took an order. The space is small, yet intimate and comfy, for those interested in eating in. The book Ms. Butler (and her husband Eddie Robinson) wrote Health Journey: Your Personal Road Map for Vibrant Living and Youthful Aging is set atop a bookcase near the cashier station for purchase.
Under the cashier station, you get a peek at some of the dishes offered. The day we were there, Friday, the Dish of the Day (a sizable veggie croquette on a bed of lettuce, veggie mac & cheese, and sauerkraut) was displayed along with one of their specialties, jicama stix (they look like Cajun fries), and oatmeal cookies. Ms. Butler gladly handed my husband and I a menu as we attempted to decide what weâ€™d try. One of Raw Soulâ€™s regular customers came in looking disappointed that the dayâ€™s dish wasnâ€™t her favorite casserole. She tried the croquette to go as my husband and I made our decision. I decided to try the lasagna, spiced apple cider, and apple fritters. My husband chose the personal pizza and bottled ginger beer.
We sat at the side admiring the organic products on display. The ambiance is calming with jazz and R&B lulling in the background and earth tones displayed throughout the restaurant. We could hear the commotion and blending in the back as our orders were prepared. Every few minutes more people trickled in making orders and inquiries on how to eat healthier. One man with dreadlocks brought his son inside and ordered a shot of wheatgrass, another woman came in to have the dish of the day for herself, while another woman ordered a meal and dessert to take home as she contemplated purchasing their book and gathering more information on raw meal preparation.
We received our drinks first from Ms. Butler. I tasted the warm apple cider and it reminded me of the better ones Iâ€™ve had that include bits of apple in it. The spice was an added treat reminding me of cinnamon and cloves. It was naturally sweet, not overly so with added sugars so that I had no problem chugging the entire drink down on a chilly night. My husband was a bit taken aback by the non-alcoholic ginger beer. â€œThat is no joke,â€ he uttered as he shook his head to watch the ginger remnants fall to the bottom of the bottle. Being the ginger enthusiast that he is he was happy to have a potent amount of the tangy root in his drink.
Our dishes arrived and didnâ€™t look all that different from their cooked counterparts. My lasagna was made with zucchini noodles, walnut cheese (made from nut milk), and a delicious sun-dried tomato marinara sauce with chopped garlic atop it as it lay on a bed of lettuce. My husbandâ€™s personal pizza had the crust made from a mixture of sprouted buckwheat, carrots, and flax with a spread of sun-dried tomato pizza sauce and an array of vegetables like olives, mushrooms, red onions, scallions, and basil. The two sun-dried tomato sauces differed in that the pizza was spicier than the marinara one that decorated my lasagna. The marinara sauce definitely reminded me of some of my favorite bottled or homemade sauces and is something that tastes just as good cold as the ones I remember did warm. Basil and garlic infused the marinara sauce making it the perfect combination for the all veggie dish to have a distinct Italian flavor. I also enjoyed the crunchiness and nutty flavor of my husbandâ€™s pizza crust mixed with the mushroom and spicier sauce.
Our apple fritters were served next. While the thought of the apple fritters under the Bread category of their menu may throw one off to think that this may be one of the few cooked dishes at Raw Soul, Iâ€™m going to have to raise a hand and note that all dishes are indeed raw. The apple fritters were three beige knots with chunks of, what looked like Macintosh, apples inside. Cinnamon was definitely apart of this nice side dish too and was a good compliment to my warm cider. My husband noted that the texture reminded him of chilled cookie dough making it an enjoyable treat for children as well to ensure that they get a little sweetness, but not too much. With the texture being of the frozen cookie dough variety making it a bit dense; our passion for the fritters hindered us from finishing the rest of our meal and we had to take it to go. We knew that next time it might be a better after dinner snack rather than a side dish.
The food at Raw Soul is definitely something that someone has to have an open mind about trying. Being so comfortable and set with meats and cooked foods, one may be very hesitant to try the new flavors and ingredients in the dishes prepared by Ms. Butler and Mr. Robinson. And, at first bite, your palate may not be ready to enjoy these new tastes going on in your mouth. I know when first tasting the fritters they seemed a bit odd, but after another bite I found myself picking them apart to enjoy the subtle sugary flavor that came into my mouth after each bite. After trying the lasagna I definitely had to adapt to the difference of having a bunch of veggies in my mouth rather than the starch of traditional pasta. However, the tastes definitely work for the dishes we tried. The spices were there so that the lasagna and pizza were perfect compliments to the warmer and carb heavy dishes of the same name.
For some, the menu at Raw Soul may be a bit pricey for the neighborhood. Our lasagna and pizza alone were $12 and $13 respectively. Yet, when it comes to splurging on natural food that tastes good and is good for you, itâ€™s definitely worth it. In addition to your food purchase, you get additional advice and suggestions from Miss Butler on what foods are good for you, how you can try to maintain a healthier lifestyle, and information on cooking classes that Raw Soul organizes.
WORDS BY: Jennifer Baker-Henry
About the Author (Author Profile)A native New Yorker Jennifer Baker-Henry has been writing since she entered the academic institution and continues to do so every moment she gets. Jennifer received her MFA from The New School's graduate program in Creative Writing and is an alum of The City College of New York's baccalaureate program in English. She works as a production editor in academic publishing, while also freelancing as an ESL tutor, proofreader, and writer for the urban e-zine AroundHarlem.com. Jennifer was a mentor for Girls Write Now and now volunteers for the organization. She's also a writer-in-residence with the Jentel Artist Residency Program from April-May 2011. Jennifer is working on a variety of short stories in addition to a collection centered around race and family, and a YA novel. You can see her writing and baking on her website at www.jennifernbaker.com.
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