Lyfe Kitchen

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.

Delicious dumpling: Ravioli embraces Gardein and Daiya

Faux friends: “Sausage” and “cheese” ravioli

Squash blossoms: Kabocha risotto with farro

Squash racket: Kabocha-farro risotto

Heart of the matter: Grilled artichokes with lemon and aioli

Heart of the matter: Grilled artichokes plus lemon and aioli

True Food Kitchen

Shiitake hits a fan: Wild-mushroom pizza

Shiitake hits a fan: Wild-mushroom pizza

Forsaking bacon: TLT (tempeh, lettuce, and tomatoes), with kale and sweet potatoes

Forsaking bacon: TLT (tempeh, lettuce, and tomatoes), with kale and sweet potatoes

Better with butter: Edamame dumplings

Better with butter: Edamame dumplings

Custard's last stand: Dairy-free chocolate pudding

Custard’s last stand: Dairy-free chocolate pudding

Mesquite bites: Banana chocolate tart

Mesquite bites: Banana chocolate tart

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.

Kreation Kafe

Smear job: The cold tapas sampler

Smear job: The cold tapas sampler

Although we had passed Kreation Kafe many times, we had never felt drawn to this organic, veg-friendly restaurant in Santa Monica (1023 B Montana Avenue, near 10th St.). The menu seemed pricey for what looked like a hole-in-the-wall, the size of a take-out joint with just a couple of small tables on the busy sidewalk, and we feared that we would be rewarded for our trouble with nothing but ostentatiously healthy punishment food. Fortunately, with the encouragement of a friend, we overcame our misgivings and discovered, first, that this sliver of an eatery stretches back into an utterly charming indoor-outdoor seating area and, second, that the food is artfully prepared and bursting with flavor. The centerpiece of the meal, which we shared with our hostess, was a pair of tapas samplers, one hot and one cold, each wonderful in its own way. The cold plate included a mild, creamy hummus; a tangy yogurt-cucumber dip punctuated by fresh mint, dill, and parsley; a simply prepared eggplant dip; a refreshing salad of chopped cucumbers and tomatoes with red onion and parsley; roasted corn and black bean salsa; and vibrant tabbouleh, with a bit of juiciness to complement the texture of the grain. Even better, the hot plate included golden, tender rosemary potatoes; intensely flavorful grilled tomatoes; sweet grilled corn on the cob; nutty wild rice with corn; and peppery, garlicky sautéed spinach with chili flakes. Only our dessert, a pair of macaroons, came close to matching our earlier, mistaken sense of the place, which is to say these vegan coconut cookies were not as moist or chewy as we would have liked. It was a disappointing ending to an otherwise much-better-than-expected dinner. All the same, Kreation Kafe turned out to be more pleasure than punishment and (priceyness aside) more than worth a try.

Interim Cafe

Super Food veggie burger

Anti-hero: The Super Food veggie burger

Medicinal: White bean soup with lots of other stuff

Kitchen sink optional: White bean soup with lots of other stuff

Having passed Interim Cafe countless times when it was closed or about to close (the hours are Monday to Friday till 8 p.m.), we often speculated about what we might find at this apparently health-oriented, veg-friendly Santa Monica spot (530 Wilshire Blvd., at 6th St.). Aside from the temporal limitations, there was something inaccessible here, starting with our uncertainty about the name itself, which we pinned down only with the help of Eco-Vegan Gal (see blogroll for link). The menu too is daunting, a thicket of soups, salads, sandwiches, quesadillas, “hot bowls,” and veggie burgers, with more permutations and descriptions than you can shake a vegan drumstick at; nor does the website offer a mission statement, a history, or anything else, beyond the menu, that might help a customer get a handle on the place. Finally inside tonight, we stood at the counter in a daze until, with help from the proprietor, we settled on white bean soup, the Super Food veggie burger, and the Woodsy Mushroom quesadilla. The soup was not quite what we expected, which is to say we had a hard time locating the white beans. What we found instead was a hearty vegetable broth loaded with everything but the kitchen sink: peas, potato, celery, carrot, spinach, tomato, black beans, quinoa, barley, and several kinds of rice. Though the effect was indeed clean and healthy, an overabundance of fresh dill made the taste almost medicinal; the toasted “health bread” on the side was pleasant enough but still had an off-putting air of virtuous austerity. The Super Food veggie burger, like all its Interim siblings, boasts a house-made patty, which escapes the usual mushiness but still ends up tasting like dry Thanksgiving stuffing, though it is helped along by caramelized onion, avocado, sharp raw cheddar, pickles, lettuce, tomato, and Thousand Island dressing, as well as a crisp but chewy whole wheat bun and a salad of mixed greens, shredded carrot, walnut, and orange. What we really liked, however, was the quesadilla, which, though undoubtedly healthy, made us think less about internal hygiene than the sensual ensemble of tastes and textures: juicy, savory sautéed mushrooms; crisp whole wheat tortillas; hot chilis; sweet fresh corn; cool, silky avocado; and just a little gooey (albeit low-fat) mozzarella. Cut into quarters, the quesadilla was beautifully arrayed around a mixed-green salad with sweet slices of strawberry. We also greatly enjoyed our frozen dessert, Chocolate Salvation, a sugar-free vegan soft-serve that was smooth, creamy, and chocolaty enough to stand on its own merits. If, in fact, the menu were oriented more toward items like the quesadilla, indeed, if the menu were only simpler, we would be more enthusiastic about this unquestionably conscientious eatery. As things stand, however, we can give Interim Cafe only a provisional endorsement.

A Votre Sante + Sweet Rose Creamery

Sprig awakening: Heirloom tomatoes with fresh mozzarella and basil

Sprig awakening: Heirloom tomatoes with fresh mozzarella and basil

Peppery: A Votre Sante's gazpacho

Peppery: A Votre Sante’s gazpacho

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.

Veggie Grill

Could it be seitan? All-American Stack, with kale

Veganism for the masses: All-American Stack, with kale

Veganism for the masses: Carne asada sandwich, with red cabbage slaw

Could it be seitan? Carne asada sandwich, with red cabbage slaw

Chewy: Carrot cake with Tofutti frosting

Chewy: Carrot cake with Tofutti frosting

In the race to bring veganism to the masses, Veggie Grill may well have the leading edge. This rapidly expanding chain has managed the impressive feat of formulating an uncompromisingly dairy-, egg-, and meat-free menu that nonetheless packs them in day and night at our local branch (2025 Wilshire, at 20th St.). Even allowing for Santa Monica’s hypertrophic health consciousness, we are continually gratified by the size and diversity of the crowds, which range from the tattooed young to the most senior of citizens. What’s more, the testimony of friends and neighbors indicates that many of the customers are in fact meat eaters. But how is the food? If we put team loyalty aside, our candid assessment is that a number of items are delicious, particularly the sandwiches, though some of the side dishes, at least, could use more work. Tonight we ordered our favorite entrées, carne asada and the All-American Stack, both centered on strips of Veggie Grill’s proprietary meat substitute, a combination of proteins derived from soy, wheat, and peas. Though the fake meat does not entirely escape the stereotypical rubberiness, it comes close thanks to a deep, savory marinade. More important, the protein strips have a lot of help from the other ingredients. Indeed, the real triumph of the Veggie Grill sandwich is its meticulous layering of flavors. The carne asada, for example, employs a spiced vegan mayo; caramelized onions; raw red onion; lettuce; tomato; cilantro; and a salty, spicy relish of finely chopped carrots, all piled up on a soft whole wheat roll. The All-American Stack boasts thousand island dressing; sweet pickle slices; lettuce; tomato; the aforementioned relish; and, best of all, crisp fried onion rings. In addition to the chorus of flavors, a Veggie Grill sandwich offers the unexpected sensual pleasure of juicy messiness. (You may well need a stack of napkins.) Still, we fear that the same people who wolf down their sandwiches are liable to leave their ostentatiously healthy side dishes on their trays. The chili has an odd, harsh taste. The kale is merely steamed; the only flavors are pungent ginger and a dash of a salty sesame-based condiment. The sweet potato fries are fine, but be sure to ask for them without seasoning to avoid the weird, funky nutritional yeast with which they will otherwise be sprinkled. Finally, beware of the mac-and-cheese, which pairs a nutritional yeasty sauce with quinoa pasta, another alien dish from Planet Vegan. The desserts and some of the soups are better; we particularly like the carrot cake, a moist, chewy square with a sweet, creamy frosting made from margarine and Tofutti cream cheese. All in all, Veggie Grill promises a great leap forward for the vegan cause, and though we ourselves might prefer to be in Little Ethiopia mopping up a spicy lentil stew with injera, we’ll keep cheering it on.

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).