Caveman Chic

Written by Regan Hofmann on . Posted in Dining Our Town, Dining West Side Spirit, Eat & Drink, News Our Town Downtown, Our Town, Our Town Downtown, West Side Spirit.


 

Perhaps you remember the Paleo diet. It arose during the great fad-diet renaissance of 2008, after Atkins had been thoroughly debunked by the master’s unfortunate heart attack and the market for bombastic pseudoscience was wide open. Into the vacuum rushed the French Women Don’t Get Fat diet, the Glycemic Index diet, the adoption of celiac disease as a lifestyle choice—all of which took the basic principles of healthy eating as espoused by the FDA for the past 50 years and tarted them up with Biology 101 vocabulary and some spuriously drawn cultural conclusions. You could waste a lot of time, money and social goodwill on these movements, all to learn that your portion sizes were too big and whole foods are better than processed ones.

The most impressive of these was the Paleo diet, which both imagined a cultural approach to eating and came up with some fascinating biological hypotheses—untested, of course. Paleo claims that the healthiest way to eat—and by extension the most slimming way—is to get back to our caveman roots and eat the foods our bodies were evolutionarily adapted for. It breaks from other systems with its enthusiastic embrace of meat (we were hunter-gatherers, after all) but is otherwise pretty mundane: lots of fruit and vegetables, not much grain, no refined anything. It gained enormous popularity among protein-powder-loving muscleheads, ticked along for a while, then faded into the hearts of a few lingering converts.

Two of those converts, however, have decided to bring Paleo back in a major way with the opening of Hu Kitchen just off Union Square (78 Fifth Ave., hukitchen.com). Their slogan is “Get Back to Human,” and one can only imagine they decided late in the game that their preferred name, Human Kitchen, was a little too Twilight Zone. The sleek two-level marketplace/café/juice bar/deli aims to be your one-stop shop for “pre-industrial” eating, from a $10 green smoothie for breakfast to meatloaf for dinner.

Every single menu item is accompanied by a full list of ingredients so you can be sure that your almond cookie doesn’t contain a single grain of wheat, that agrarian menace. Many have jumped on the “mash bar,” a kind of Cold Stone Creamery for the raw food set, as the highest example of Hu Kitchen’s over-the-top approach. At the bar, you choose a base of yogurt or chia seed pudding, then add mix-ins like fruit, nuts, granola and cashew butter. Aside from the name, however, this is the least ludicrous food in the place. If you’ve ever bought a yogurt parfait from a Starbucks, you’ve been to a “mash bar.”

No, the real silliness lurks at the rear steam table/grill station, where lentil burgers come on vegetable buns and spinach is creamed with cashew milk. Real celiac sufferers know how difficult and time-consuming it is to approximate bread with non-wheat-based flours; I’m pretty sure no caveman ever baked with xanthan gum and dehydrated chickpea flour out of a biological imperative. And when they managed to get their hands on a Paleolithic chicken, I can guarantee they didn’t bother to coat it in coconut sugar and almond meal to make cutesy chicken fingers.

For a restaurant so devoted to taking the industrial process out of food, there is an enormous amount of approximation and ingredient-wrangling taking place at Hu Kitchen. Leaving out the spurious evolutionary conceit of the Paleo diet (biologists have taken issue with the notion that there was an “ideal” moment in our development, nutritionally speaking, and that it’s all been downhill from there), the philosophy’s mantra of whole foods prepared simply is a rational one. But adding sugar—even unrefined, naturally derived sugar—to a prepared meat dish is still processing. Raw cocoa in a fudge brownie doesn’t make it any less of an indulgence. The veneer of science here covers just another fad diet grounded in deceit and high-priced meal replacements; Jenny Craig for the Master Cleanse set. If you really want to get back to nature, walk the block to the Union Square farmers market and eat a carrot.

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