Victual voyeurism reaches staggering heights at Mooi, the new raw and vegan restaurant that opened two weeks ago in Echo Park's historic Jensen's Rec Center. Order a plate of orange jackfruit chicken over rice and within seconds of the dish's arrival, you'll feel eyes on you. Lots of them.
A diner or two might even approach and ask what you're eating. Five or six others, having taken in the contents of your plate with more than a glancing curiosity will then train the cold digital eye of a camera or iPhone on their own meals.
This almost ceremonial observation isn't of a creepy "Eyes Wide Shut" variety, it's more along the lines of a spirited, communal spectator sport. It's happening because what chef and owner Stephen Hauptfuhr is turning out of the curtained back kitchen is rather astonishing. Especially to the many people in the room who know what kind of work goes into creating balanced, flavorful raw food.
If eating is an art form then eating raw is a philosophy packed with artistic flourishes. And preparing raw food ("cooking" isn't part of the raw foodist vocabulary) is a deeply contemplative process. Components for certain dishes -- such as the mixed and pressed bell peppers, onions, coconut meat, olive oil, spices and salt that are used to create tortillas for Mooi's enchiladas -- often take a day or more to properly dehydrate.
The same holds true for the rich, tangy broccoli cashew cheese soup; the thick corn tamales with pignolia sour cream and cacao mole; and the jalapeÃƒÂƒÃ‚ÂƒÃƒÂ‚Ã‚Â±o peppers stuffed with smoked paprika nut cheese and crisp eggplant bacon.
As a result, premeditation takes precedence above all else, especially when you're cooking for a restaurant full of people. Which is what Hauptfuhr has found himself doing more often than not since Mooi opened its doors.
"Everything we do is by hand, it's all artisan," says Hauptfuhr. "There's no speed process to doing any of it, unfortunately."
This is also true for Hauptfuhr's signature desserts, which he became known for as a caterer before launching Mooi. Currently he has concocted 24 flavors of raw/vegan ice cream, which is made largely from cashews and coconut meat. Before they can be used, the cashews must soak, sit and be rinsed for a total of 72 hours. ("I have tubs going at all times," says Hauptfuhr.) Then he adds the flavors -- a variety of fresh fruits, raw chocolate, nuts and spices -- to create luscious, surprisingly creamy varieties, including Aztec chili cinnamon coffee, butterscotch flan, watermelon lime and caramel apple pie.
There is a custom-made ice cream cooler and bar at the front of the room, which seats eight. The rest of the large corner space -- which has high, lofted ceilings and a steep staircase leading to a cloistered mezzanine where a friendly host sits at a little desk -- is crowded with a colorful hodgepodge of vintage chairs, tables, chandeliers and mirrors.
It's as if the Mad Hatter had a 1960s British psychedelia-themed organic tea party and invited a profoundly harmonious group of friends with sculpted mustaches, glittery headbands, hand-sewn capes and pleather boots.
Service is fraternal and personable. Nobody is in a rush. A night out at Mooi could easily last three hours or more, and that's just fine with Hauptfuhr. "We're all friends here," he says. "And it's nice to know that people aren't eating here just because it's good for them. They're eating here because it's good."
Where: 1700 W. Sunset Blvd., L.A.
When: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays; 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. Wednesdays to Saturdays.
Price: appetizers, $5; entrees, $9 to $13; desserts and smoothies, $2 to $7.
Contact: (213) 413-1100; www.mooifood.com