Midway through a second meal at Quintessence, one of my regulars bitched, “You know, this is one of the worst things I’ve ever tasted.” She was referring to the nori rolls ($9), and I had to agree. The seaweed wrappers were sodden—as if the rolls had been sitting around—and the filling of sprouts, sunflower seeds, avocado, and puréed vegetables had an acrid flavor that quickly became a chemical-tasting afterburn. Without the mellowing effect of heat, strong flavors like onion, ginger, garlic, and radish can become overpowering. The pasta Italian ($11) was a disaster too, though the dish made a pretty picture on the plate. Dressed with a decent cheeseless pesto, the “pasta” of shredded raw squash tasted like so much hay, and it took a strong will to plow through it.
It’s a very California idea: a café that serves organic vegetables, fruits, and grains—all painstakingly prepared, and untouched by the heat of the stove. But uncooked doesn’t mean unprocessed—in fact, this new cuisine depends upon a phalanx of food processors, blenders, sprouters, cold presses, and dehydrators, which are often employed to turn familiar ingredients into unappetizing mush. Corollary is an odd compulsion to create simulacra like veggie burgers (nearly inedible) and ravioli wrapped with raw turnip (not bad). Sadly, while the Greenmarket may abound this week in delicious sugar-snap peas, miniature Tristar strawberries, and the season’s first sweet corn, you’ll find none of these unadulterated raw pleasures at Quintessence.
But there are good things on the menu too. The soups ($5), in particular, can be wonderful. A special of cucumber-dill is powerfully herby and tart, while regular offering “peter’s pot”—gyrating little wads of tomato and avocado—possesses a rich and spicy flavor that compares favorably with gazpacho. The desserts are also good bets. A wedge of coconut cream pie is light and airy, with a crushed-nut crust and a squiggle of carob syrup—though I suspect it’s as high in saturated fat as crème brûlée. The beverage called apple pie ($4), an organic cider blended with something that creates a brown scum on the surface, really does make you dream of pie. But skip the “electrolyte lemonade” ($3.50), for which the waiter made extravagant health claims. Milky and weird tasting, it prompted another friend to quip, “Hey, they’ve reinvented soap.” Chemically and aesthetically, he was right.
My real complaint about Quintessence, though, is that it’s more about religion than food. The front page of the menu proclaims all sorts of nutty-sounding things you’re expected to agree with: “Weakened over the centuries by eating altered and artificial foods, we have lost much of our potential as a higher being”; “There is much supporting the fact that those who eat only raw food live free of illness and disease, their mind becomes sharp and negative emotions disappear.” I’ll keep my negative feelings, thanks, including the one that the food at Quintessence isn’t very good.