Photo by Anne Fishbein

I first saw Juliano at the Santa Monica Farmers Market. Indeed, who there could not notice the impossibly long-waisted, shirtless, surfer-tanned, blond-dreadlocked human spectacle effortlessly humping boxes as if they were filled with air and not organic produce for his raw-food restaurant?

At Juliano’s Raw, just blocks from the market, on the corner of Sixth and Broadway, one spots Juliano again, both bare-chested, on a poster advertising his cooking class, and in the glorious flesh clad in a tight cap-sleeve T-shirt, advertising the whole raw way of life.

At Raw, there is no cooking — at least no cooking with heat. There is slicing, chopping, shredding, blending, puréing, grinding, pulverizing, mashing, juicing, soaking, dehydrating, rehydrating, fermenting, sprouting, extruding, wrapping and saucing aplenty.

The dining room, which is white with certified organic paint, is filled with abstract pictures painted by elephants, and many flowers — mostly red-throated lilies with their heavy, sweet perfume. At the counter one can watch some of the “uncooking” and dine solo comfortably. On the way out to the patio, a window into the kitchen reveals a woman stirring up a batch of beige purée and a man pushing sprouted grain, fresh herbs and tomatoes through a grinder that, in turn, extrudes a long tube of greenish-ivory paste.

Like their employer, the young waitresses also bear witness to the benefits of the raw life, not to mention how good a tanned, toned and well-fed body can look in skin-baring clothes. The client base is, in general, an affluent, casual, health-conscious Santa Monica crowd. I’ve even seen a suit here, but usually there’s a preponderance of women, a few of them frighteningly thin, others lushly yoga-buff, still others of fit middle age. Some young couples like the place, as well as older ones, and the occasional Juliano wannabe wanders in. On my last visit I sat beside a Japanese man in his 40s trying to explain to his skeptical mother the “raw’n roll” veggie “sushi” or the faux “salmon” roll.

Juliano’s Raw follows in the footsteps of vegetarian restaurants that set out to re-create those foods that the diet disallows. This makes for compensatory cooking — or, in this case, compensatory non-cooking. I have sampled raw-food preparations — indeed, I have used a raw-food cookbook at home — and was anticipating a different realm of textures and food combinations. What I did not expect, and was immediately thrilled by, was Juliano’s level of flavor.

The Sea Witch soup had long strands of chewy cured seafood, soft chunks of avocado, sunflower sprouts, and a soy-tinted broth with enough garlic to inoculate against vampires. A similar intensity but completely different taste is delivered by the turmeric-yellow “tom gyi,” a rich curried coconut cream soup unfortunately dotted with slightly, and I believe intentionally, fermented tomatoes.

Guacamole — purported to be slightly warmed, though ours was perfectly cool — came with flax crackers. (Italics, usually indicating remakes, are rife on this menu.) Flax seed, as our waitress explained, becomes gelatinous when soaked; the wet seeds are then spread out to dry, and they come out glued together into delicate, crunchy sheets that form perfectly serviceable “crackers.” The tasty and juicy Tijuana Taco, meanwhile, employed a red cabbage leaf as a shell to hold tomatoes, avocados, mushrooms and chiles convincingly spiced to taste, well, like a taco. A faux salmon roll really did taste deceptively like real seafood, thanks to dulse, a particularly fishy seaweed.

Entrées were almost all built to resemble familiar cooked dishes. Pad Thai, the Thai national noodle dish, consisted of long strips of julienned vegetables tossed with chopped almonds and sprouts; it had a lively texture, but the sauce was way too sweet and one-note, and made a person yearn for the lime juice, fish sauce, cilantro and scallions of a true pad Thai. Harem in the Raw was constructed much like the Tijuana Taco — here, the red cabbage leaf served as pita bread — but the filling did have a distinctly Middle Eastern flavor, with coarse ground “falafel balls,” zucchini hummus, olives and tahini. Most derivative was the “Meat ’n Potatoez,” whose patty, made of walnut and mushrooms, managed to capture not only hamburger and meat loaf’s nubbly texture but also the faint winy sourness of meat. A few chopped bits of broccolini accompanied this “meat,” as did “mashed potatoes” made of cauliflower and topped with a dark-brown daub of “mushroom gravy.” Least allusive was a dish called Raw Nirvana, composed of various unknown substances, one of which was a brown, curry-flavored nut-and-vegetable paste in the shape of a pyramid, another a sweet coconut-based “rice.”

After the appetizers and entrées, we were inevitably full, our stomachs and our senses, thanks to the sheer barrage of detail in the dishes. Yet remembering Juliano lugging boxes of beautiful organic fruits around the farmers market inspired me to order dessert from a selection of “pies,” “mousses” and “tortes” in their raw versions. “Pie crusts” proved to be ground nuts glued together with ground dates; they held purées and chunks of different, unidentifiable too-sweet items. One night a fruit special was puddles of two such purées surrounded by slightly fermented chunks of peaches and other fruit in a murky sauce. I called the waitress over. “This fruit is, uh, tangy,” I told her.

She assured me that the fruit had been intentionally fermented to give a kind of “champagne” kick to the dish. “It won’t hurt you,” she promised.

Call me old-fashioned, but I have yet to develop a taste for even carefully rotted fruit.

If at the beginning of each meal at Juliano’s I felt enthusiasm for the raw approach, by the end of each meal I found myself wearied by it. Who knew raw food had to be so complicated, so processed, so handled? The compensatory urge — to remake raw food in cooked food’s image — begins to seem in part gratuitous. Juliano, with all his talent, may be trying too hard too much of the time. A few islands of simplicity might have gone a long way to relieve the unabashed fussiness of his non-cooking. I left yearning for a plate of fresh sliced tomatoes, a plain leaf-lettuce salad with maybe a few fresh herbs, a sweet organic peach at peak ripeness.

Juliano’s Raw, 609 Broadway, Santa Monica; (310) 587-1552. Lunch and dinner daily 11 a.m.–10 p.m. Entrées $9.95–$12.95. No alcohol served. Street parking. AE, D, MC, V.

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