My friend Betsy and I weren’t looking for redemption — we’re grownups who work hard to make the world better than we found it, take both vitamins and good advice, and are not given to debauchery — and yet we found it.
At a restaurant.
Grezzo, a warm and intimate place in Boston’s foodie and famous North End, specializes in raw food cuisine. It’s no salad bar, however. On a cold February night, we sampled the chef’s lively tasting menu that featured Mushroom Tea Soup, Gnocchi Carbonara, Greek Pizza, and a Chocolate Torte, among other treats. There was not a leaf of lettuce in sight.
Established by Alissa Cohen, a raw food expert, Grezzo Restaurant presents a health-based menu of vegan foods that are pressed, pureed, chopped, fermented, sliced, dehydrated, slightly warmed (not above 112 degrees), and chilled but never heated, cooked, or roasted. Cohen and her staff believe that a raw, vegan diet increases energy and youthfulness and alleviates illness, even chronic ones like arthritis, migraines, and diabetes.
And that was why I was there, as a guest of the restaurant, to sample the menu and test its affect on my blood glucose. While I doubted that one meal would alter the course of my Type 1 diabetes, I was openly curious about how the chemistry of raw food would change the chemistry of me. Anyone who’s diabetic has at least some practice in reading food labels and counting carbohydrates. Interestingly, though, we don’t distinguish in our carb counting between 15g of apple that’s raw and 15g of (unsweetened) applesauce. Complicating our knowledge of a food’s carbohydrate content is this mysterious property called the glycemic index, which says that some foods make our blood sugar spike quickly and some result in lower and more steady glucose levels.
Does food preparation, too, matter to blood glucose? Based on my small sample of one person and one meal, I might claim, “Yes, it matters.”
As soon as Betsy and I were seated at one of Grezzo’s tables for two, I checked my blood sugar: 154. The first course was a picture-perfect soup of sliced baby bella mushrooms, dulce, pea shoots, minced pineapple, and cayenne floating in a tea broth that reminded us of a Chinese sweet-and-sour soup, yet with a little more bite. There seemed to be so little carbohydrate that I held off on the insulin. (Also, I eat slowly and sometimes a bolus of insulin acts more quickly than I eat, and I end up with a troublesome below-50 BG.)
The next course, a gnocchi carbonara, featured little nut gnocchi, “bacon” made of dried eggplant and soy, the restaurant’s “ramesan cheese” made of raw pine nuts and cashews, and a lovely sprinkle of pea shoots. The sauce was white and silky; the pasta yielding and chewy; and the greens crunchy. This was a lovely composition that was also remarkably soothing after the spicy soup. The list of ingredients, read to us by our attentive server, presented me with a conundrum: for what do I need insulin, when there are scant amounts of carbohydrate in the foods?
Indeed, of the four dinner courses we sampled — the soup, gnocchi, a stuffed avocado, and a pizza — there was very little in the way of carbs. Chief ingredients, which the chef used inventively, seemed to be nut purees, almond flour, vegetables, seeds, olives, and oil. One can find plenty of fiber, water, and the good kinds of fat in Grezzo’s raw food dinners, but the only carbohydrates seem to be coming from green vegetables. A cup of raw broccoli, for example, has only about 6g.
With no bread basket in front of us, and no baked potato or semolina-based pasta on the plate, it was a challenge to figure out how much insulin to take. I knew already that, at 154, I was about 50 points over target. So, in the middle of the gnocchi course, I guessed that I might eat 30 or so grams of carbohydrate. I bolused 3 units of insulin and set the pump on square wave to deliver the bolus over 60 minutes as opposed to instantly.
The rest of the meal unfolded at a gracious, unhurried pace. Dishes were set in front of us, and we “oohed” over the prettiness of the food before we lifted our forks. Betsy liked the Stuffed Avocado best of all: a dehydrated avocado half, rolled in almond flour, was stuffed with a macadamia sour cream and chopped dehydrated broccoli and sprinkled with flecks of eggplant bacon and chili oil. Yum. I’d vote for the gnocchi as my favorite of the meal courses. Neither one of us loved the Greek Pizza entree, with its flax seed and carrot crust, garlic and macadamia white sauce, wilted spinach, and dehydrated onions and tomatoes. Betsy and I agreed that garlic needs a little heat to soften and mellow, and any kind of mock food that tries too hard to approximate an original can’t but fall short.
If two people can be unanimous, then we unanimously loved the desserts. (I bolused 2 more units of Humalog when the sweets appeared.) Turns out you don’t need a box of white sugar, quart of heavy cream, and a bag of King Arthur’s to construct a cake, tart, torte, or gelato. A tiny squash cheesecake gets its signature tang from the fermentation of the nut cheese. Gelato is creamy because of its coconut and cashew base. A fruit called lacuma, when pureed, makes a persuasive caramel sauce. Razor-thin slices of apples, marinated in citrus and shaped into a miniature tower, delights equally the eye and taste buds. And the combination of raw chocolate and coconut butter makes a dense and creamy torte. All get a little boost of sweetness from agave.
“I am satisfied,” declared Betsy at the end of the meal. She left a triangle of chocolate torte on her plate. I ate it.
A few minutes later, chef and culinary nutritionist Samantha Bonanno brought out a gift for us: the cheese plate. We groaned… and tucked in. There were sprouted buckwheat and flax bread sticks (my favorite), flax and caraway crackers, three soft cheeses, pickles, sliced raw beets with garam masala, and “pepperoni” made from sliced watermelon radish. We nibbled at everything. There’s always room for a little more raw food.
Betsy and I thanked the server and the chef and walked to the train station a few blocks away. When I got home 40 minutes later, I checked my blood sugar: 99. That’s pretty amazing: a starting BG of 154, seven courses that included desserts, and only 5 units of Humalog on top of the basal rate. Was the outcome due to the rawness of the food, the combination of the ingredients, the reasonable portions, or the lack of simple carbohydrates? Without more testing, I cannot isolate the key factor. However, after my satisfying meal at Grezzo, I’d like to experiment more with vegan raw foods. Without compromising my blood sugar control, I had a large meal that was tasty, filling, and beautiful, and I shared it with a great friend, who summed up the most satisfying take away of our dining experience: “I feel so virtuous!”
Note to eaters: If you live in or are visiting Boston, you’re lucky — you can try Grezzo Restaurant tonight. If you live far away and still want to sample some of their menu items, Grezzo ships its cheeses, gelato, cheesecake, and chocolate torte via mail order. Alissa Cohen, the founder of Grezzo, sells her raw food cookbook here. Names and locations of other raw foods restaurants, in U.S. and world cities, can be found at Raw Food Info. A good raw food recipe blog, The Happy Raw Kitchen, presents recipes and photos of food that remind me of what I tasted at Grezzo.
Image credits: Grezzo Restaurant