Getting Raw With Chef Kelly Dennis
At Bliss Raw Café & Elixer Bar

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If I'm going to be completely candid here, I have to tell you -- I wasn't really sure I wanted to go. I've had raw food here and there. But just a nibble or a taste at a friend's house or an event. But an entire meal? And dinner no less? Just wasn't sure it was such a hot idea. But I've been trying to take my rock climbing instructor's advice and do some that scares me everyday. So, I headed off to Bliss Raw Café & Elixir Bar.

It wasn't just eating the food that scared me. It was the feeling stupid factor. Raw food holds so many secrets. Every chef does something different and nothing on the plate is as it seems. But I had heard good things about Chef Kelly Dennis. Like a tiny sprite, she glided out of the kitchen to greet us when we arrived. I had to wonder if this tiny thing was old enough to be a chef at all.

I was surprised to learn that she was 24 and well inculcated into the world of raw.

Raw food, for the uninitiated, is food that consists of unprocessed plant foods, which have not been heated above 115 degrees Fahrenheit. The benefits of raw food include better absorption of enzymes and nutrients, weight loss, and feeling a general sense of well-being.

Bliss also specializes in elixirs, which are liquid cocktails, of sorts, crafted with super foods (those rich in phytochemicals known to have disease-fighting properties) and blended to support vital mental and corporeal functions. Phytochemicals may lower the risk of some chronic illnesses, increase longevity, and strengthen the immune system.  

All of the foods at Bliss are free of gluten, sugar, meat or dairy products, (fun?), unhealthy additives, processed flours, genetically modified foods, pesticides, preservatives. The foods are purchased from local providers whenever possible.

A lifetime love of raw is not what brought Dennis to where she is now. Instead, she explains, "I kind of slid into it. I was working at Spiral Diner and Bakery in Fort Worth and then at 105degrees in Oklahoma City." Dennis was the Executive Chef there after serving as the pastry chef. The menu with which she worked was created by renowned raw food chef and author Matthew Kenney.

Dennis is not raw herself. "I'm not a vegan either," she explains. In fact, "I even eat steak. I was a vegan, and I've always been interested in food and cooking. I thought it would be great to work with vegan food. I don't use tofu. I'd rather eat natural meat than processed tofu. I don't like to put something in my body that's been put into so many machines and been chemically altered."

So, what's the key to making great raw food? "It's just always improving," Dennis says. "Like to make a cake lighter and less dense. Cakes and breads are tough. Not as light as they could be but not as dense either. I don't like to imitate meat but I feel good imitating cake."

It's amazing, all that Dennis knows about how to get one food to mimic another. She says that, "The best way that I've learned, honestly, is by experimenting. Really scientific learning about how things respond and react. Like coconut oil gets hard when it's chilled. So you can make a crust hard by chilling it with coconut oil."

Dennis' interest lies in creating things that look and taste great without being harmful to the body. For example, she creates "cheese" out of macadamia nuts. And then she uses a dairy-free probiotic "to ferment it and give it an extra cheesy flavor," she explains. "If you know how to combine things, the final product doesn't have to taste like its components."

To create crackers she makes her own flour and mixes the grains with the seeds. To make them crisp, she uses a dehydrator rather than an oven. To make things sweet she opts for agave or other sweeteners. "But not refined sugar," Dennis explains.

The health benefits of eating raw stem from the fact that your body doesn't have to work so damn hard to digest and process the food it's being fed. "Often the calories are about the same as their counterpart," explains Dennis. "But how you digest it is so much more quickly than meat or dairy. I honestly can't tell you the exact amount of fat grams that [are in the dishes I serve].

It's like a big science project, really, and some of the "assignments" are more challenging than others. One of Dennis' favorite successes? "On Valentine's Day at 105, Matthew wanted us to do a dessert with meringue. It was a raspberry shortcake. I was definitely pleased with it. I used Irish moss, which is clear and acts like gelatin. It gets foamy. The trick is to get it to not taste like seaweed."

Like me, lots of people have preconceived notions about raw food. "A lot of guys are dragged in by their girlfriends. They expect the portions to be small and all of the food to be dense with no flavor," says Dennis. Luckily for diners at Bliss, nothing could be further from the truth. Dennis lulls nervous customers by offering a number of dishes that look familiar, like lasagna and burgers.

But despite the fact that some customers come in filled with trepidation, "Coming here has been great," she says. "Everyone has been really nice. The first time it was hard. There was so much stress and pressure. My staff was all older than me. But I learned so much. I'm still going to face challenges, of course. But it's kind of exciting."

The current location in Preston Center is a consolidation of the former Bliss Café and Elixir Bar on Greenville Ave., which recently closed its doors. Customers wanting to eat in the raw can now get their fix at the laid back space in the Park Cities.

The owner of Bliss, Dee Pisarro, is also working on a new concept (set to open in December) on Henderson Avenue that's called V-Spot. The new digs will focus on cooked vegan/vegetarian-fare. The former Bliss location on Greenville Avenue will be renovated and re-concepted. More on that in 2011.

As for Dennis' own future, well, she says, it "might be too soon to say. I don't see myself working with raw food forever. Maybe with slow food though, like Potager in Arlington. That's something I've really enjoyed doing."

The restaurant has a hip, relaxed vibe. More NYC than DFW. Orange walls, hanging plants, and orange-spotted glass lights decorate the narrow restaurant as do banquettes flanking the walls, dark wood ceilings, and exposed metalwork across the ceiling. Grateful Dead and Eric Clapton play in the background.

The real test, of course, is the food. We started with a "Cheese Tasting" that included Bleu Cheese, Herb Shallot, Pepper Jack, and Orange Cranberry, all of which were not cheese at all, but were made from macadamia nuts and cashews. They were served with three-seed crackers, candied walnuts, and sliced apples.

Then we had a Beet Salad made with orange anise marinated beets, arugula, candied walnuts, cashew chèvre, and tarragon vinaigrette. I don't like beets. At least I didn't think I did. But I ate every last bite of the ones Dennis served. Guess I only like them raw. Go figure. It was tough to get the perfect bite of the salad. All of those gangly greens, oddly shaped nuts, and gooey faux chèvre (made with nuts, salt, lemon juice, and probiotic, by the way). But it was definitely worth trying.

We also sipped on an elixir called Minty Hemp made of cool, sweet peppermint hemp seed milk, with mesquite and agave nectar. It's much tastier than it sounds, and I would have mistaken it for a mini milkshake if I didn't know better.

The main course was a "burger" with a sprouted grain bun (made from sprouted oats and buckwheat), Portobello "burger," cheddar "cheese" (made from cashews), 1000 island dressing (this was made with something wacky too...), house-made dill pickles, and tiny, crispy, zingy zucchini chips. A dehydrator gets credit for crisping up the incredibly thin slices of zucchini that most people would swear were fried.

We also tasted the kelp noodles in a spicy sauce. They had a surprising crunch but still made a clever and satisfying stand-in for flour or rice based noodles. 

The dessert parade we indulged in started with a Pumpkin Pie Cheesecake with Ginger Cream, Caramel, and Candied Pumpkin Seeds that had a fluffy texture that most traditional cheesecakes would envy. Then we indulged in a Dark Chocolate Ganache Tart with Coconut Crème Fraiche and Candied Cranberries that was better than any of its traditional counterparts that I've ever had. (And I've had a lot of them.) And we finished with Chocolate Peppermint Ice Cream that was ridiculously fluffy and Cacao Truffles that would make Mr. Godiva himself stand up and take notice.

There's nothing to be scared of here, my friends. And considering what most of us will be gobbling this week, some raw food might be in order. Your digestive system will thank you.

Bliss Café and Elixir Bar
6005 Berkshire Lane in Preston Center across from Gold's Gym.

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