There’s just one raw-food restaurant in Mississauga and this is it, a quaint 22-seater on busy Lakeshore Road East. In the summer, they add a couple of sidewalk tables which attracts attention, but word has been spreading since Aura opened 18 months ago and a growing number of people who want to eat gluten-free Vegan food that has never been heated above 110oF (43oC) are making the pilgrimage. For some, it’s a matter of health; for others, a philosophical choice. For owners Dimitris and Harula Fraggoulis (his family owns Colossus Greek tavern a couple of blocks east), both reasons apply. A couple of years ago, Dimitris discovered that Vegan raw food eased the symptoms of his colitis. When the lease on this property came up, he took the plunge. It’s a cute space with bright abstract canvases on the walls, tables made from sawn rounds of a tree trunk, and a fine bluesy choice of music playing. Its greatest asset, however, is chef Doug McNish, who works in full view in an open kitchen behind the bar.
McNish is in his late 20s and has been a Vegan since he was 21. The change in diet was good for him: he lost 100 pounds. Still, I imagine it hasn’t always been easy sticking to his guns in his chosen profession, especially when he was slapping hundreds of steaks onto the flames as the grill cook at the Air Canada Centre under Brad Long or working for Arpy Magyar’s endlessly busy catering company, Couture Cuisine. But McNish seems to revel in challenge, setting himself the strictest of culinary parameters. It goes without saying that raw food is healthy, all vitamins, minerals and enzymes retained as nature intended. And doing without refined and processed foods is probably a good thing, too. But it can be argued that some of the beneficial compounds in plants can only be accessed by our bodies after those plants have been cooked in some way or another. And I don’t buy the argument that raw food is more easily digested than cooked food. Quite the reverse, in fact. Raw Aura’s food is rich, dense and very filling. It’s also packed with flavour and McNish manages to offer an attractive variety of textures, thanks to techniques such as dehydration, cold-pressing, shredding, spiralization, squeezing, blending and chopping.
Crispy kale leaves are a case in point – shredded kale splattered with a tangy nut butter and then dehydrated until they really are crispy. I could eat them by the handful. Some of them turn up as jaunty little plumes on an appetizer of very thinly sliced raw red beet topped with a creamy purée of red pepper and a thicker “ricotta” of tangy puréed cashew. Big flavours, contrasting textures… The menu describes the dish as “ravioli” which is strange and misleading since the ingredients are layered not stuffed. And why call the nut purée “ricotta.” This food doesn’t need to borrow words from orthodox gastronomy to explain itself.
Some dishes remind us that we already eat plenty of raw food. Avo Tartare is a kind of turbo-charged guacamole of diced avocado, tomato, juicy shiitake mushrooms, green onion and hemp seeds in a herbed lemon sauce. A platter of dips includes a green pungently garlicky spinach-and-sunflower-seed paste and a hummus of sprouted chickpeas. McNish’s “breads” are more original, made of seeds and grains, some sprouting and alive, pressed together to form dense conglomerates. One is hard and crunchy, another softer and bendy, all of them full of layered, subtle flavours.
Really excellent smoothies are one option where drinks are concerned. Dimitri Fraggoulis also brings in a small range of organic wines, some from Ontario, the most interesting ones from Greece, including a fresh, tangy Domaine Douloufakis Vilana from Crete called Enotria.
It was great with a main course of sweet and sour noodles, the noodles made from kelp and raw zucchini, tossed with onion, cilantro and romaine in a super dressing of almond butter infused with maca. What’s a maca? It’s a starchy Peruvian root that tastes a tad malty and gives a massive energy boost. But by now my digestive system was waving frantically that enough was enough. This raw food is more robust than the things we usually eat.
McNish is particularly good with desserts. He makes a sensational dark chocolate cake textured with banana, avocado and cocoa and a very dense, dark chocolate brownie with coconut frosting. My favourite is a fruity blueberry “cheesecake” involving more nut butter. Instead of sugar, sweetness comes from agave, xylatol or dates.
McNish is cheerfully easy-going about the Vegan way. It’s great if you want to change your life and eat like this all the time, he says, but you can also use it as an occasional culinary break. Raw Aura is worth a detour. I’ll be going back.
94 Lakeshore Road East (near Hurontario Street), Mississauga. 905 891 2872. www.raw-aura.com