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In Lowell, they're lining up for Life Alive cafe's raw deal

LOWELL -- In the city's renovated arts district here, Heidi Feinstein has set up shop making vegetarian dishes with healthful ingredients and some Asian overtones. At her spot, Life Alive Urban Oasis and Organic Cafe, she is offering unprocessed, mostly organic, preservative-free food, all made from scratch. Most of it is very lightly cooked, or rather "flash-steamed," which accounts for the "alive" part of her cafe's name.

On any given day, you might see something on the menu called "The Healer," which is a filling bowl of steamed broccoli and dark greens with flax oil, kelp, raw sun sprouts, and nutritional yeasts served over quinoa. Or perhaps Feinstein will serve you "The Seeker," lemony hummus with Granny Smith apple, cashews, carrots, and spring greens in a wrap. Whatever you eat, the idea here is to feel nourished because the food is minimally cooked (only soups are fully cooked). Feinstein's background is in holistic health, and while she she's not part of any particular movement, she thinks that raw food is beneficial. "I totally think the power of raw food is undeniable," says Feinstein, "but it's not for everyone."

Dracut builder Alec Szymanski comes to Life Alive because he thinks owner Feinstein is "an exceptional cook and health consultant." He describes his bowl of soup as "excellent, as good a bowl of vegetable soup as I've ever had." When ordering the soup, Szymanski has consulted Feinstein about his sinus trouble, and bought something for it, along with chocolate-covered almonds for his wife.

The cafe is located in a storefront on a quiet, cobblestone street. Customers walk up a few steps from street level, then go through a foyer with a hand-painted mural of two dancing figures reaching out to each other. You place orders at the far end of the room, then sit at tables or on sofas and comfortable chairs and wait for your meal to be delivered by a staff member. Dishes arrive in shallow, ceramic bowls of various bright colors. Dozens of signs describe ingredients, nutritional content, and curative effects of the food served. One sign, for example, extols the benefits of eating shiitake mushrooms, explaining that it can boost immunity and lower cholesterol. The room, which seats about 25, is painted butternut-squash orange, red, and purple; shelves hold holistic health magazines and books, vitamins and supplements, and aromatherapy candles.

"I really thought my business would be selling these products," says Feinstein. "Other than a little juice bar and some brown rice with a few steamed vegetables over it, I was actually planning to have a massage and yoga studio here, and the rest would be all the other stuff."

The prepared food part of the business took off right away. "I had no idea what I was getting into," says the entrepreneur. Quickly, Life Alive became more restaurant than anything else. "We're slammed at lunch," she says. Despite its niche in the vegetarian community, the cafe attracts all kinds of people. "I have meat and potato eaters who come here regularly," she says. Although the restaurant makes some dishes with dairy products, Feinstein also attracts vegan diners.

In the back of the room, Eric Wayne is eating and reading a newspaper. A Lowell police officer for 10 years, Wayne thinks Life Alive is "the best restaurant in the city." Two years ago, he became a vegetarian and now eats at the cafe once or twice a day. Feinstein says that when Wayne first started coming to the restaurant he only ordered the smoothies. But since then, he's ventured into the other dishes.

There are two reasons for the fresh taste of the entrees at Life Alive. One, of course, is that ingredients are purchased daily; the beans and rice are purchased weekly. The other reason is the flash-steaming. A $6,000 steamer, which Feinstein went to considerable expense to locate and install, can cook a half dozen or more lunches at a time, in less than two minutes. Feinstein dubs it "the future of fast food." It is roughly 2 feet tall by 3 feet wide, and it sits on a countertop in the preparation area. Pressurized steam from purified water is rapidly forced into the machine from the back, barely cooking the ingredients. "People comment on how good they feel after eating this food."

Once a week, Kendra DeColo of Somerville comes to Life Alive for lunch. "I'll ask Heidi what will make me feel better and she'll recommend something; it's definitely an urban oasis," says DeColo. If she has to pick a favorite menu item, DeColo says it's "The Goddess," made with ginger nama-shoyu sauce, carrots, beets, greens, and smoked lemon-garlic tofu. Meals can be ordered by the bowl, the wrap, or as a taster plate.

DeColo says, "This place has a lot of soul. When I walk in here you can feel the mission. You feel like you're part of a movement to rise to a higher consciousness level or to make the world better."

Life Alive Urban Oasis and Organic Café, 194 Middle St., Lowell, 978-453-1311 or