Notwithstanding the spelling, we were excited to visit the new Lyfe Kitchen in downtown Culver City (9540 W. Washington Blvd.), one of the first locations of a healthy fast-food chain with plans to open 250 restaurants nationwide in the next five years. The extensive vegan portion of the menu, designed by famed chef Tal Ronnen, includes the delicate, flavorful Gardein sausage and Daiya mozzarella ravioli, beautifully plated with kale, broccolini, cherry tomatoes, and basil, and a subtle, creamy kabocha squash risotto, made with farro, kale, carrot, and broccolini. We also loved the grilled artichokes and, for dessert, the apple and quinoa crisp with soy yogurt. The restaurant itself is bright and stylish. Here’s hoping this innovative and ambitious enterprise really does add new life (if not “lyfe”) to the standard American diet.
Although True Food Kitchen (395 Santa Monica Place) denies it is a health food restaurant, this claim is, well, not entirely truthful. As the website explains, the menu is based on “Dr. Andrew Weil’s Anti-Inflammatory Food Pyramid,” so don’t go there expecting a lot of fat, white flour, or sugar (approved sweeteners include honey and agave). Regular readers of this blog know of our perennial skepticism toward such establishments, but True Food Kitchen does a better-than-average job within the parameters of the genre. We began with the edamame dumplings, the only dish on the menu with butter and cream (as we learned, to our delight, after we ordered it). The dairy fills out and gives a rich texture to the white-truffle-oil-laced pureed-edamame filling of the dumplings, which float in a savory bath and are topped with whole beans and daikon radish sprouts. For an entrée, we had an excellent wild-mushroom pizza, featuring slivers of shiitake and other fungal delights with garlic and Taleggio cheese on a crisp, thin crust (nothing contrived here; Taleggio and mushrooms are a classic combination). We also liked Andy’s Favorite “TLT,” featuring tempeh strips tamed of their natural bitterness and imbued with the right salty and smoky notes in place of that meat product we would rather not think about. The sandwich came with the standard tomato slices and mayonnaise, plus avocado, on toasted whole-grain bread, along with a pair of sides: a peppery sweet-potato hash and a raw salad of shredded kale tossed with a kicky balsamic vinaigrette and a bit of Parmesan, for a great combination of sweet, sour, and spicy. Of our two desserts, we preferred the banana chocolate tart, featuring a crust made of mesquite flour topped with warm slices of bananas, cream, and Brazil nuts, but we also liked the custardy vegan chocolate pudding, nicely complemented by toasted pistachios and walnuts and a sprig of mint. The only part of the meal that disheartened us was our nonalcoholic drinks (wine and cocktails are also available). Both the Hangover Rx, with coconut water, orange juice, and pineapple, and the Medicine Man, with olivello, pomegranate, cranberry, blueberry, and black tea, tasted like nothing so much as Vitamin Water. Still, that was only a blip in an otherwise pleasant dining experience enhanced by the stylish, industrial-chic decor and the superb service. We may not always like health food restaurants, but, truth be told, this place won us over.
One of our favorite local walks takes us through the McMansions and more elegant homes north of Montana Avenue to the misnamed Brentwood Country Mart (it’s actually in Santa Monica). Since we have always found the food rewards of this journey to be limited, we were cheered to realize that A Votre Sante, a healthy, veg-friendly (but no longer fully vegetarian) restaurant on our list, happened to be just around the corner in Brentwood proper (13018 San Vicente, near 26th St.). The menu turned out to be a wide-ranging, perhaps too wide-ranging, collection of vegetarian standbys adapted from various cuisines: a burrito, a falafel platter, a vegetable stir-fry, and (straight from the macrobiotic house of horrors) a combination of seaweed, tofu, brown rice, black beans, and tahini. Steering clear of these not-very-promising options (we doubted they could all be done well in the same place), we opted instead for several items on a separate menu whose elegant font promised better fare. We started, then, with two appetizers, a thick, peppery gazpacho, with bits of cucumber and onion for a welcome bite, and a caprese salad featuring juicy, flavorful slices of heirloom tomatoes topped with fresh mozzarella, basil, and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. We were less pleased with our pizza, perhaps another example of how A Votre Sante tries to do too many things. The bland crust was more like a floppy flatbread than the foundation for a genuine pie, while the San Marzano tomato sauce was a little too sweet and the mozzarella not as thoroughly melted as we would have liked (to be fair, we followed our usual practice of requesting a light touch in the oven to avoid charring around the edges). Overall the meal was serviceable but underwhelming. Deciding therefore to skip the restaurant’s desserts, we headed instead to Sweet Rose Creamery, the Country Mart’s superb little ice cream shop, where we shared a scoop of dense, smooth salt caramel on one of the light, crisp house-made chocolate waffle cones. If dinner in the neighborhood of the Country Mart were as special as the ice cream, we surely would be enjoying that long evening walk more often.
Update: As of May 2014, Veggie Grill is up to 24 restaurants (16 in Southern California, the rest in Northern California, Oregon, and Washington State).