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Cafe Muse overview (Bart Nagel photo)

What’s not cooking in Berkeley?
Raw food’s on the menu at the Art Museum’s Café Muse

| 17 March 2004

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It’s sometimes hard to recall that Berkeley was once just another American town, whose citizens cooked, served, and ate what Americans everywhere did.

Then, in the early 1970s, a new breed of restaurant broke the Boy-R-Dee mold — along with a handful of places where Berkeleyans could shop for interesting foods to prepare at home. Patricia Unterman’s Beggar’s Banquet, Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse, Victoria Wise’s Pig by the Tail (a French-style charcuterie occupying the space where the Cheeseboard Pizza Collective now thrives), the Cheeseboard itself — all opened in quick succession, feeling their way toward success with a reliance on enthusiastic but largely self-taught labor, an ad hoc supply chain, and the curiosity of their clientele.

Where town met gown, the Swallow Collective, with a café ensconced on the ground floor of the Berkeley Art Museum, attracted its own cadre of loyalists. The collective’s best-known alum is Ruth Reichl, currently the editor of Gourmet magazine.

multiple dishes
(Bart Nagel photo)
 

"The Swallow was originally started by people from the Cheeseboard," Reichl recalled in a recent exchange with the Berkeleyan. (Her co-collectivists are familiar characters to those who’ve read her best-selling memoir, Tender at the Bone, which devoted a full chapter to The Swallow.) The cooks were "very conscious of being a collective, and in that sense experimental," she continued. "We also felt the need to be cutting edge about the food. We were making quiche at a time when people were coming in and asking ‘What’s a kichay?’ on a daily basis."

The Swallow’s cooks attempted such radical innovations as genuine Italian antipasti (in an era when sliced salami and pimento-stuffed olives fairly well exhausted that repertoire), Moroccan and Indonesian dishes, even fresh-baked bread (!). Reichl herself ventured out on the farthest imaginable limb by undertaking to make fresh chutneys.

"That doesn’t sound so out there now," she said, "but in the early ’70s people were startled that we baked our own pastries and made fresh vinaigrette for our salads."

La plus ça change . . .
The old Swallow space is occupied today by another café perched squarely on the culinary cutting edge. Sarah Rich, the young chef at Café Muse, is bringing her imaginative "raw food" dishes to a near-campus venue in the hope that Berkeley’s adventurous diners will enjoy and then embrace it.

Rich developed her love for vegetarian cooking while attending Stanford. "I made a lot of vegan things for the people in my co-op," she says, "but tried to be creative … to make something more than ‘co-op slop,’ where you throw stuff into a big wok and stir it around." She became interested in raw food through her reading in "health philosophy," although over time political, social, and ethical issues have become interwoven with her purely health-oriented concerns. She honed her skills in food preparation and presentation while operating an East Bay catering company, Artemisia Foods, before taking the chef’s job at Café Muse this past winter. It’s her first-ever restaurant gig.

Café Muse now features half a dozen raw dishes on its menu daily, along with a variety of more conventionally prepared sandwiches, soups, and salads. Hence, if you’re seeking a change from your standard deli sandwich — even though in this "deli" you’d be lunching on organically raised chicken, Niman Ranch pastrami, and dolphin-safe tuna salad — you can experiment with a pad Thai whose "noodles" are peeled from the flesh of young coconuts, served with a Thai-style sauce made from pureéd Fresno chiles, medjool dates, Celtic sea salt, garlic, and rice vinegar.

None of the ingredients in this or the other raw dishes are cooked above 110 degrees Fahrenheit — which means, essentially, that they’re not cooked at all. Foodies are familiar with this approach because of the success achieved by Roxanne Klein in her eponymous (and profoundly upscale) Marin County restaurant, Roxanne’s. And healthy-eating advocates have pursued raw-food regimens of one kind or another for years, though most have failed to reach a broader audience.

Café Muse stakes its claim in the middle ground: You don’t need an expense account to eat there (entrees top out at $6.50), nor must you be on Gypsy Boots’s speed-dial list. Creativity is given free reign: you can enjoy a Thai-style curry/butternut-squash soup with young coconut water, a lasagna built on layers of sliced zucchini, cashew "ricotta," and a "marinara" of sundried tomatoes moistened with nama shoyu, or a "taco" salad with cashew "crema" and pumpkin seed "refritos."

What’s with all the quotation marks?
They’re ours, not the menu’s. Responding to a semi-serious question about why anyone would bother to make a taco salad without refried beans, seasoned hamburger, shredded iceberg lettuce, jack cheese, and gloppy bottled salsa, Rich first acknowledges that it can be "terribly annoying" to have health-food dishes named after mainstream foods they only narrowly resemble. But, she continues: "I suppose the reason for naming raw dishes after the counterparts they attempt to mimic has to do with making them accessible to those who are trying raw food for the first time. Part of it, too, is about having fun adapting old familiars into raw-style dishes."

Though she fully embraces the salubrious effects of a raw-food diet — including the efficient absorption, digestion, and utilization of stored food energy by our bodies, as well as improved planetary progress toward biodiversity, sustainability, seasonality, and reduced fossil-fuel consumption — Rich is no one’s idea of a sprout-tossing faddist.

"I don’t want raw food to be perceived as a poor attempt at remaking familiar food for the sake of better health," she insists. "I want it to be perceived as a new movement in food — not only for the sake of good health, but for the sake of novelty and art."

Her approach dovetails with that of the café’s owner, Daryl Ross, who operates several food-service facilities on and near campus, including Caffè Strada, the Free Speech Movement Café (in Moffitt Library), and Boalt Hall’s Café Zeb. Long interested in the organic movement, Ross hadn’t incorporated that philosophy into his business until an "epiphanic" encounter with Alice Waters during the planning of what became the FSM Café.

"I realized I wanted to offer an alternative menu for UC Berkeley students, faculty, and staff, " Ross says, "in contrast to what other places around here provide — something that would be organic, sustainable, and affordable. That became my vision, which by offering raw food at Café Muse we’ve extended even farther." Ross intends to incorporate raw food into the menu of Adagia, a new "destination" restaurant he plans to open in the redeveloped Westminster House Presbyterian ministry on Bancroft Way, across the street from Caffè Strada (and, not incidentally, from the Berkeley campus as well).

The Berkeley dining revolution of 1971 has consolidated its gains around the nation. Will Café Muse warrant a full chapter in Sarah Rich’s memoirs 30 years hence? Or will "raw food" be remembered as a passing craze, the way foodies now look back on "fusion" and pink peppercorns? If commitment, dedication, and deliciousness are the criteria for lasting success, failure may find Café Muse, Adagia, and their nascent ilk a hard (and decidedly raw) nut to Swallow.

Café Muse is located at 2625 Durant Ave., between College and Telegraph, at the rear entrance to the Berkeley Art Museum. It is open daily from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Thursdays until 7 p.m.