If you’re a vegan or into raw foods, chances are you’ve heard about Living Kitchen through the grapevine. You may already have eaten in the restaurant that opened last summer in downtown Raleigh, joining a small but growing number of establishments that cater to these lifestyles. Or maybe you’ve just stopped in to grab a smoothie or cold-pressed juice to go.
Either way, I’m guessing you’re a fan. So am I, committed omnivore that I am.
But I will admit that, as I began to graze my way across Living Kitchen’s entirely vegan, mostly raw menu, I found myself mentally putting quotation marks around the names of dishes, and even around a number of ingredients listed in the menu descriptions.
Around “manicotti,” for instance, a dish that doesn’t contain an iota of its namesake pasta. In its place are ribbons of zucchini “pasta” wrapped around a creamy filling of cashew “ricotta cheese,” served with a raw tomato “marinara.”
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And “Vietnamese pho,” which serves up kelp “noodles” in a vegan broth that gets its spicy kick from an optional dollop of Indonesian sambal. And the Living “burrito:” sunflower seed “refried beans,” cauliflower “rice,” cashew “sour cream,” pico de gallo, guacamole and sprouts, wrapped in a collard leaf.
At first, the traditionalist in me chafed at this zealous co-opting of culinary terms, especially in dishes that bear only a passing resemblance to their namesake. Then I ordered the Fire & Brimstone burger, and I saw the light.
You noticed the lack of quotation marks around “burger” in that last sentence, right? That’s because, as I realized while thoroughly enjoying this spicy quinoa-millet take on the concept, the veggie burger is solidly established in the culinary mainstream. At some point in the past, the veggie “burger” was itself an appropriated term. Living Kitchen is just expanding our vocabulary.
So I began to let go of those mental quotation marks, and I saw that, taken on its own terms, the food at Living Kitchen can be as delightful as it is surprising.
Admittedly, I still can’t quite drop the quotation marks from everything I sampled. There’s nothing “Mediterranean style” about those paprika-dusted balls of portobello “falafel,” as far as I could tell, except for the little dishes of tabbouleh and cashew yogurt tzatziki that accompany them. And tricolor sunflower seed “hummus” is three kinds of tasty (you get a scoop each of lemon-parsley, sweet curry and roasted chipotle), but it’s very dense and coarse-textured, more like a chunky nut butter than any hummus I’ve ever come across.
But the sweet potato sushi roll is no more outlandish than some of the specialty rolls you’ll find at any number of Japanese restaurants. And the presentation – nori-wrapped stained glass windows of minced sweet potato and cashew rice, red bell peppers, cucumber and avocado – is pretty, to boot.
Pad Thai earns its name with cilantro, lime and bean sprouts scattered across a tangled skein of zucchini and sweet potato noodles dressed in an almond butter sauce that does a surprisingly respectable job of mimicking a pad Thai sauce.
The Rawco taco salad – avocado, pico de gallo, “meaty walnut-almond crumbles” and cashew sour cream on a bed of romaine, with sun-dried tomato sesame crackers presumably meant to suggest a taco shell – requires a little more imagination, but hits the spot. Especially if you jazz it up with extra house-made hot sauce.
Tucked in among all these fancifully named dishes, the avocado-basil sandwich looks downright prosaic. But it fully delivers on its promise, along with tomato, red onion, sprouts, lemon-parsley hummus and cashew sour cream on a toasted multigrain bread.
The menu doesn’t single out the Tomatico tart as a signature dish, but it gets my vote. The presentation – cherry tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms and arugula, tossed in basil-cilantro dressing and piled high on a base of cashew mascarpone crema in a fluted shell of sprouted almonds – is a stunner. And it’s every bit as delightful to the palate as it is to the eye. The catchy, well-suited name (tomatico is Spanish for “little tomato”) is just icing on the metaphorical cake.
Those with a taste for cake of the literal variety won’t be let down by Living Kitchen’s dessert offering. I’m partial to the lemon-berry cheesecake (plant-based, naturally, on a pecan crust), but I wouldn’t turn down the turtle cake or house-made coconut-cacao pudding.
The Raleigh restaurant is the second Living Kitchen and is located on the ground floor of the Charter Square Building in a sleek modern space with a corner view of Fayetteville Street and Memorial Auditorium. The original is in Charlotte, and a third location just opened in February in Chapel Hill. The menus are essentially the same at all locations, though the Raleigh restaurant doesn’t yet serve Sunday brunch like the Chapel Hill location does.
Of course, if you’re a vegan or a raw foods disciple, you probably know all that. If you aren’t, you really ought to give Living Kitchen a try. The experience won’t convince you to give up meat – or cooking – entirely. But it will be a thoroughly enjoyable meal without either. And as the meal progresses, don’t be surprised if you find your thoughts punctuated with fewer quotation marks, and more exclamation points.
Two locations: 555 Fayetteville St., Raleigh; 919-324-3515 and 201 S. Elliott Road, Chapel Hill; 919-535-9191.
Cuisine: vegan, raw (mostly), with gluten-free options
Rating: ☆☆☆ 1/2
Atmosphere: sleek, modern
Noise level: low to moderate
Service: knowledgeable, enthusiastic and attentive
Recommended: Tomatico tart, pad thai, sweet potato sushi roll, Fire & Brimstone burger, avocado-basil sandwich, desserts
Open: Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. The Chapel Hill location also is open Sundays.
Reservations: accepted for parties of eight or more
Other: beer and wine; accommodates children; excellent vegetarian selection; parking on street and in nearby garages.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.