Restaurant Review: Raleigh Raw Loves Its Image. We Love Its Food. | Food Feature | Indy Week
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Restaurant Review: Raleigh Raw Loves Its Image. We Love Its Food. 

Order up: Jake Wood, Raleigh Raw's executive chef, stands behind his goods.

Photo by Ben McKweon

Order up: Jake Wood, Raleigh Raw's executive chef, stands behind his goods.

I'd been perched on a stool alongside the alabaster bar of Raleigh Raw for less than thirty minutes when my nightmare suddenly morphed into reality.

Since my arrival, the man one seat over had been quietly reading a new biography of the inventor Elon Musk while sipping from one of the narrow restaurant's premade bottles of cold-pressed juice. It may have been the carrot-and-pineapple-based Quest Love, or perhaps the creamy cashew-and-date dream, The Cash Bah.

At any of the dozens of nearby bars that line Fayetteville Street or the perpendicular capillaries that bisect it, people were no doubt relaxing or laughing over after-work cocktails or craft beers—happy hour, if that was legal here. But MiniMusk and I simply sat in silence, him with his juice and me with a wonderfully subtle smoothie of blueberries and bee pollen. We passively nodded along to Outkast playing from overhead and looked up to inspect the occasional customer asking something like, "So, what is matcha, anyway?"

Finally, though, MiniMusk put down his book, picked up a glowing black tablet, tapped the screen several times, and then leaned toward me to ask for the all-powerful coffee shop sigil.

"Hey, man," he said, "what's the password?"

I'd laughed the first time I'd heard the code myself and secretly hoped I'd never have to say it aloud. But, well, here we were. I felt myself recoil, and, at last, I replied, "It's 'Fuel the hustle,'" unconsciously pitch-shifting the last syllable of the TED Talk-meets-Tumblr motivational motto until it curled upward, like a question. My neighbor said thanks and, presumably, logged on.

A customer enters Raleigh Raw on Hargett St. in downtown Raleigh - PHOTO BY BEN MCKWEON
  • Photo by Ben McKweon
  • A customer enters Raleigh Raw on Hargett St. in downtown Raleigh

Raleigh Raw is housed in a diminutive former office space, so small and utilitarian that the webs of painted pipes that service the rest of the building are fixtures as prominent as the furniture itself. The aesthetic suggests a meticulously maintained social media feed. Air plants dot shelves that appear to have been 3-D printed from a Kinfolk kit. Bamboo stalks poke from vases, and the staff rotates colorful cups of flowers and stems between the counter and tables throughout the day. Coffee mugs sport the faces of David Bowie and Pharrell Williams or, if that's not inspiring enough, more cris de cœur about hustles and struggles and answering your email. An art installation by Justin Yang shows Winnie the Pooh clutching a PBR, and Ron Swanson cast in a series of Warhol-like frames.

The logo—a blossom stretching and opening skyward—is as ubiquitous as an invasive species, from the paper sleeves that wrap every cup (and sport the wireless password) to baseball caps and T-shirts displayed in multiple locations. And sharply designed signs, made in Instagram-ready squares, tell you about good fats and bad fats, the perks of eating local, and the power of consuming pollen. Not raw at all, the space is absolutely curated, that word's every connotation in tow.

But the image isn't merely a façade. Raleigh Raw is the brick-and-mortar debut of a long-running local juice company from young entrepreneurs Sherif Fouad and Leslie Woods. They have sold their wares for years via branded vending machines and at-home delivery service. And for Fouad, it's the concrete culmination of a personal quest to understand how our diet affects our health and causes diseases, a voyage prompted in large part by his father's own physical ailments. The tale doubles as inspiration and pitch.

Nearly a decade of research inspired Fouad's line of excellent juices with tellingly whimsical titles, like the low-sugar, highly green 9th Wonder or the tantalizingly sour-and-spicy Salt N Pepa. Those concoctions now have a permanent home near the front of Raleigh Raw, in a large glass cooler opposite dual registers—themselves telling signs that, like its neighbors and contemporaries at Happy + Hale, this aims to be much more than a juice bar.

Less than three months after opening, Raleigh Raw already boasts a surprisingly wide menu, from matcha tea-based drinks and "crack coffee" that diffuses oil and butter through a hot black brew to a full slate of breakfast and lunch options. Almost without exception, the place executes on every front.

Led by chef Jake Wood, the kitchen makes miracles of coconuts. Sit in the shotgun space long enough, and you'll hear loud thwacks pass through the swinging door. That's the sound of the staff cracking open the hulls of young Thai coconuts and bottling the liquid that rushes out. The fresh coconut water—sold in that wide refrigerator alongside bottles of alkaline, reverse osmosis, and fluoride-free water—is buttery and addictive.

A sample of a new sushi dish to be offered on the menu at Raleigh Raw - PHOTO BY BEN MCKWEON
  • Photo by Ben McKweon
  • A sample of a new sushi dish to be offered on the menu at Raleigh Raw

It's what Raleigh Raw does with the meat inside that counts most, though: In the coconut ceviche, cubic shreds of the pulp marinate in a mixture of lime, spices, herbs, and vegetables, the saturated white strips shining like raw fish. The flavor is brilliant and bright and briny, conjuring the fantasy that you are indeed enjoying ceviche in some seaside town. It is a vegetarian coup on par with the nearby Fiction Kitchen's Eastern-style barbecue.

The kitchen goes the other way with its "coconut bacon," dehydrating slivers of flesh in a mix of spices, tamari, and liquid smoke until the fruit actually takes on the sweet, salty properties of maple-cured bacon bits. The uncanny alchemy of both dishes suggests that Raleigh Raw's abiding reputation as a juice emporium is but temporary.

No, Raleigh Raw's ambition isn't secret, and its best dishes are uniformly the most aggressive. The seaweed salad soaked in beet juice (pardon, the "Rock Steady") winks with hints of sugar and vinegar, unexpectedly emboldening the sushi bar favorite. The same goes for its take on "poke," an en vogue deconstruction of a sushi roll endemic to Hawaii. Tuna, salmon, or golden beet sashimi sits atop a flavored bed of rice. It's a filling and fast lunch; laced with the mild heat of spiced cashew-based mayonnaise, it can even feel like an early-afternoon indulgence.

Raleigh Raw takes on breakfast, too, and not only with coffee and juice. The "chia pudding" is a generous ladle of chia seeds, dredged in almond milk and maple syrup and covered with slick slices of fruit. It's like a cold oatmeal superfood. The creamy, crafty "Khaleesi Bowl" is made with dragon fruit and named for Game of Thrones, because a dozen pop culture puns deserve another, right? Still, the radiant puree of purple and pink—capped with the yellow of pollen and the green of kiwi and the white of dragon fruit chunks—looks as rich as it tastes.

A view of the interior of Raleigh Raw on Hargett St. in downtown Raleigh - PHOTO BY BEN MCKWEON
  • Photo by Ben McKweon
  • A view of the interior of Raleigh Raw on Hargett St. in downtown Raleigh

The errors, really, are minimal but illuminating. The sriracha hummus, the menu's most middle-of-the-road concession, tastes even more uninspired than it sounds, all the potency of the peppers subsumed by overly dense chickpea paste. And if you want to take the six-dollar chance, you'll need some vegetables for dipping—another two-dollar expense, this time for cross sections of cucumber and sticks of celery and carrot.

Raleigh Raw isn't cheap, especially in a context where most of the menu is to-go and most of the food is prepackaged. The juices are nine dollars, a buzz-inducing "matcha lemonade" four. That's acceptable, at least when you feel like you're paying for a risk to be taken, or subsidizing the cost of an uncommon experience. Raleigh Raw satisfies that criterion, at least until a plastic pail of bland, pale hummus and a few celery sticks comes to ten dollars with tip.

I suppose it makes sense for Raleigh Raw's least impressive dish to be its least audacious. The hummus is just what you orderwhen you don't know what else to get. In listening to the staff gush when answering questions about the menu, or in watching the owners flit about, brows furrowed in concentration, their ardor for the entire enterprise—that is, for thriving at the unlikely intersection of hippie and hipster—is obvious. Micromanaged image notwithstanding, it's a contagious sort of energy.

Or maybe that's just the crack coffee and matcha latte talking. Hey, you gotta fuel the hustle.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Well Done"

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