If you are the kind of diner who gets hung up on first impressions, M.A.K.E., Matthew Kenney's raw-vegan restaurant in Santa Monica Place, may not be for you. It is not just on the dining deck but actually in the mall's food court, so to get to it you have to pass by any number of gadget shops and cheese counters. Its open-walled design makes it difficult to figure out where the food court ends and the dining room begins.
If you are new to the nut pastes, purées and dehydrated flatbreads of the raw-food thing, you will probably get distracted by the menu board of the restaurant right across the way, whose promises of buttermilk fried chicken, blue cheese burgers and fried dill pickles can look pretty good when you are considering a plate of substances that could probably be used as spackle in a pinch. If you have brought a child with you, there will be wails of anguish when he discovers that the "taco" you promised him is in fact nothing at all like a taco, and he may compare the za'tar flatbreads that come with the hummus to the crackers you buy to feed the baby goats at the zoo.
Unless you are unusually attractive, M.A.K.E. is probably not a good place to drag a cranky carnivore on a date.
The principles of raw vegan cuisine may or may not be sound, and we have all read the anthropologists who suggest that the onset of cooking was the precise point at which our hominid ancestors became truly human. And unheated food does take a bit of getting used to.
I brought my brother and my nephew along with me the first time I went to the restaurant. They are both nominal vegetarians, but the piles of kale and the zucchini lasagna were more than even they could handle. I think they may have stopped for bean and cheese burritos on the way home.
Still, I knew that Kenney came from a different place than the hustlers and dietary evangelists usually associated with the raw-food edge of cuisine. He had bobbed along for years in the middle tier of New York celebrity chefs before he dove into the raw vegan thing and had earned a best new chef award from Food & Wine. He ran a number of Mediterranean-style restaurants in Manhattan, including Matthew's, his flagship, and Monzu, where I loved his stylish take on French-influenced Sicilian cooking. Kenney was always more of an empire builder than a perfection-obsessed chef — he always seemed to have a dozen projects going at once — but his cooking was solid, and good young chefs competed to work in his kitchens. Pure Food and Wine, his first step into the vegan restaurant world, was regarded almost as a miracle by raw foodists used to chefs who emphasized vitality over flavor. Kenney is the real thing. So, one imagines, is Scott Winegard, his chef in Santa Monica, who has been with Kenney for years and has cooked at Noma, among other places. (Winegard also played bass in the '90s emo band Texas Is the Reason.)
In 2013, a lot of the techniques of Kenney's raw cooking are also found in modernist kitchens: Coi, Manresa and Alinea, etc., where dehydrators, Vitamixes and silicon sheets are as commonly used as pots and pans. M.A.K.E., with its attached cooking school and juice bar, is scarcely out of the mainstream. Meaty slabs of king oyster mushrooms with asparagus and sea beans; paper-thin slices of cauliflower jutting like fins from a disk of a kind of harissa-enriched vegetable couscous with walnuts; or a spray of thinly sliced carrots erupting from a base of cumin-scented nut butter are dishes you might see in any modernist restaurant in the world.
So lasagna is made of shaved zucchini in place of noodles, grated macadamias in place of ricotta and dried tomatoes in place of a long-cooked ragu. The textures and flavors are familiar, but it is less a replica of the pasta dish than a nod in its direction, complete with a killer pesto. Maki — untoasted nori seaweed wrapped around slivers of avocado and Japanese pickles — looks persuasively like a sliced sushi roll but tastes nothing like it, probably because the "rice" is made from a minced white vegetable (I'm guessing jicama). Kimchi dumplings, surrounded by a moat of vivid purple, are wrapped in leaf-green skins made by dehydrating a vegetable purée until they do somewhat resemble dumpling skins.
There is a "cheese" plate — the three wedges are fashioned from fermented nut pastes, including pimento cheese made with cashews and chipotle, and a nearly persuasive truffle cheese made with macadamias — with strawberries, smears of coarse mustard and delicate-blue borage flowers. For dessert, there is an uncooked apple pie, garnished with disks of frozen cashew cream cheese, and Kenney has written entire books about the wonders of uncooked chocolate.
Will three or four meals be enough to sway a hardened raw-foods cynic? Of course not, any more than a trip to Mastro's Steakhouse will persuade a vegan to switch sides. But it may be enough to make him take a second look.
Tacos that aren't tacos, cheese that isn't cheese, but somehow it kind of works.
395 Santa Monica Place, Santa Monica, (310) 394-7046, matthewkenneycuisine.com/restaurants/santa-monica
Share plates, $14-$16; starters, $10-$13; main dishes, $15-$18; desserts, $10-$11.
Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Credit cards accepted. Wine. Mall lot parking.