Wednesday, July 8, 2009

GRO Cafe

GRO Cafe

437 Congress Street


Its full name is GRO Grassroots Organic Juicebar/Cafe/Chocolatier. As a vegetarian and self-proclaimed food critic, I felt a keen responsibility to visit and report upon an eatery that my friends described as “raw and vegan.”

I confess that I am not an expert on the tenets of the raw food diet. For the completely uninitiated, I can tell you this: for food to be considered raw, it can be cooked at a temperature no higher than 112 degrees. The idea is to preserve living enzymes, thus optimizing the health benefits of the food. GRO Cafe aims to do this and more. It wants to use local ingredients as often as possible; all of its ingredients are organic; it even produces its own raw vegan chocolates. GRO rumors are swirling about the city: a fellow food critic claims that GRO is cultivating its own mushrooms in a back room, and a different reviewer told me that it is fresh herbs that are growing. GRO's own website says that it has its own organic garden in Westbrook. If these reports are true, GRO focuses on fresh, local, and organic like no other Portland eatery.

So it came that Renee and I ordered takeout; luckily for me, Renee already had a menu on hand. And what a menu it is! It is a vegan's and vegetarian's playground. I could order anything on the menu. This surprised me, as some of my friends had told me that the menu was not very extensive; while GRO's menu is on the smaller side, a vegetarian can order any dish on it. Most restaurants leave vegetarians with one or two options for their main dishes—for vegans, the pickings are even slimmer. I found myself overwhelmed by the options GRO's menu offered. Overwhelmed in a good way.

GRO's cafe space is casual. It's a place from where one would order take-out or grab a quick lunch. It is clean and spacious, but it also has a hippie-who-wishes-he-were-a-graffiti-artist feel to it. The empty walls could use some artwork.

I first ordered a smoothie from their drink menu. I selected the Gaia-Sphere ($7 for a large), which, according to the menu, contains cashew and coconut milks, strawberries, kola nuts, blueberries, hemp seeds, bee pollen, dates, and ice. Yum. For my lunch, I ordered the Terra Burger, which GRO's menu describes as “A savory burger made with sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, carrot, and a hint of smoked-paprika” ($8). I also selected a chocolate to nibble upon while my lunch was assembled.

The chocolate was a large heart filled with coconut. The chocolate had good flavor, although the consistency was a little too fudgy (perhaps a side effect of one of Maine's rare warm days). The coconut center tasted fresh. I will definitely be going back to GRO for chocolates.

The Gaia-Sphere proved fresh, invigorating, and tasty. In fact, it was a meal in itself.

Staying true to its mission, GRO packaged my meal in a recycled, biodegradable container. Inside, my burger was posed in between two interesting pieces of bread. I've never seen bread quite like this before. The “bread” resembled herbed crepes more than bread or a bun. This is probably because they are live pieces of bread made from sprouted grains. They were tasty! The burger itself was also a treat: its nutty texture combined with the fresh pickles was a delight.

I like GRO Cafe. It's a place where vegetarians are the rule rather than the exception. I don't have to ask anything special to be made for me; I don't have to ask if the soup contains chicken stock. GRO made me feel like my visit had been anticipated. I will be eating at GRO again—very soon.


  1. *Sigh*, GRO. I want to love that place so much, but lately it's been failing. Here are my posts on the place:

    It was pretty good when it first opened, but now the owner (Ivan) and the chef (Andrew) who started it never seem to be there. The people who are cooking now just seem to be going through the motions without really having a feel for what they are doing. Even the smoothies aren't what they used to be.

  2. I talked to the owner (his name is Igor) and he said they are aiming to have herbs, mushrooms, and wheatgrass growing on site. He also wants to have an educational display about the electromagnetic properties of soil... he has a lot of ideas, actually! But I find it strange that they are not keeping regular hours- two weeks ago there were hand-written signs on the door saying 'Closed today, sorry, reopen on Monday,' etc. So we'll see if GRO has staying power!

  3. Right, Igor. That's what I meant. If you talk to him you catch the vibe right away. He has a lot of energy. But i think things seem to be falling apart there. The 'shroom room has been closed and full of junk the last few times I was there, for example. And, yeah, I've found them to be closed at odd times too. Here's hoping they pull it back together.

  4. During my last raw vegan stint my friend and I tried it. It was heaven to us. For two girls who don't really have time/like to cook we were confined to a limited menu with in our own homes. Eating at GRO was a wonderful treat and we were as happy as kids in a candy store. Everything on the menu is raw vegan except some of the smoothies. We didn’t have to think about what we were ordering. Eating out while raw is ridiculous. May I have a salad, hold the dressing, nuts (roasted usually), croutons, and cheese? Besides GRO I didn't eat out this last month of being raw because by the time my salad came it was a bed of lettuce, tomatoes, and onions for $10+.. And it was sad to know that I could make a better salad at home and could save myself the dirty looks from the wait staff!

    I loved the girl that "cooked" for us. I didn't catch her name but she had long blonde hair. She was really friendly and was chatting with us about raw recipes. I told her about a raw pesto with zucchini linguini I made and she was genuinely interested. She even explained to my friend and I how to sprout our own chick peas.. That we didn't need to buy a sprouter. We could just soak them then leave on the counter. She never once looked at us like we were amateurs and shouldn’t be wasting her time. We both left feeling excepted and full of yummy goodness. She even stayed late for us. In an article in the Maine switch it said open till 8pm. I realized as we were leaving the door said 6pm and it was ten of 7p. We apologized and were told it was no problem with a smile.

    The whole experience was great for me.. and I will be back..Soon!

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