Cafe Society

True Food Kitchen is good...and good for you

It wasn't until dessert that the server cracked a grin. Not a polished smile, because the young man in TOMS and a relaxed white shirt had been giving those all night as he answered questions, delivered plates and filled glasses. Grins are different, involving not just a curve of the lips, but a twinkle in the eyes, and this one came while he was steering us to the almond olive-oil cake. "It's served with citrus marinated in sea buckthorn, a berry that grows in the Himalayas," he said. "It's loaded" — big grin — "with antioxidants."

What had sparked his inner giggle? Was it pride at remembering facts from training? Joy at the chance to bring us into the eat-healthy-be-healthy fold? A tinge of embarrassment, masked with a laugh, at having to say the word "antioxidants" when he'd rather be somewhere else, chasing nachos with a beer? Whatever the reason, his professional veneer was back in a flash, and that's probably how the corporate heads behind True Food Kitchen want it. The restaurant, one of six in the brand operated by Phoenix-based Fox Restaurant Concepts, tries hard to play it straight, serving food you'd eat even if you didn't know it was healthy, without proselytizing — or snickering, if that's indeed what this was.

See also: A Closer Look at True Food Kitchen

The anti-inflammatory-food pyramid — the one behind Dr. Andrew Weil's prescription for a healthy life — is nowhere to be seen, even though it inspired the True Food concept. It's not on the walls or the door or even in the key at the bottom of the menu, where symbols such as v (vegan) and gf (gluten free) are spelled out. Calories aren't listed, nor are buzzwords like omega-3s or glycemic load. Still, Weil's principles, translated to the professional kitchen by brand chef Michael Stebner and executed by Alejandro German, former executive chef at Osteria Marco, are the bedrock of the menu.

But let's assume you don't know any of that. If you stopped in simply because you noticed people camped out on planters and wanted to see what was worth waiting for in the cold, or because you peeked in the windows and liked the looks of the place (it feels rather spa-ish, with skinny trees lining a wall, apple-green banquettes and lemon-yellow chairs), what would you think of the food?

For the most part, you'd think it was very good, with flavors pulled from across the globe and enough choices to suit everyone in your group, from dressing-on-the-side types to meat-and-potato eaters, though here the meat is bison and potatoes are skin-on and sweet.

Meals start not with sopressata and prosciutto, but with hummus, so light on tahini and heavy on herbs that it's more of a chickpea spread than the dip associated with Middle Eastern restaurants. Topped with feta, cucumbers and halved grape tomatoes, it's more substantial, too, especially when scooped with flax-filled pita. The onion tart, akin to flatbread, pairs chewy figs, caramelized onions and Gorgonzola, just the sort of flavors you crave on a winter's night. Less suited to the weather but equally delicious are edamame dumplings. These wonton-wrapped packages, plump with green purée, sit in a pool of dashi, the Japanese broth at the base of miso and ramen. Steamed rather than fried, they surrender gracefully in the mouth, their elegance ramped up with a dash of truffle oil.

This isn't food you want with sweet or gingery drinks, yet that's precisely what many women — and most True Food diners seem to be women, either in Lululemon sweats or dangly jewels — choose to order. The juicer can get so backed up that your Kale-Aid might saunter in near the end of the second course, at which point it's become a third wheel. Go away, glass of green. This steelhead salmon, prettied up for a night on the town with preserved lemon, beets and quinoa, is flirting with me.

Other entrees woo, too. A trio of meaty street tacos says all the right things. Panang curry over brown rice laughs at your jokes. Shirataki noodles with cashews, oyster mushrooms and spicy green curry tell a story you find yourself retelling later. Salmon aside, they might not be the kind of dish you give your number to, much less cook eggs for at three in the morning, but they're perfectly pleasant company. Sometime in the future, you will look back and realize you wanted more oomph in the tacos, more heat and aromatics in the curries — but isn't that what happens when down-to-earth health food becomes a corporate chain? Edges — both those of Dr. Weil and ethnic cuisines — come away softened.

Despite variations for brunch — think quinoa johnnycakes and Greek frittatas — the menu is mostly the same at lunch and dinner, which explains why there are so many sandwiches, pizzas and greens. It is in these sections that you detect the hidden culinary agenda — that is, if Andy's elixir hasn't already tipped you off. Made not from beef but from grass-fed bison, a burger gets depth from onions, mushrooms and a soy-laced sauce loaded with what we now call umami. A BLT comes as a TLT instead, with strips of smoked tempeh (a soybean product) standing in — quite capably — for bacon. Pizzas don't have pepperoni, but they do have slightly charred, blistered crusts from the stone oven and toppings that go well together, like smoked mozzarella, butternut squash and a pile of peppery, raw arugula. Salads are microcosms of Weil's pyramid, with intentional blends of apples, pomegranate and walnuts, or Manchego cheese, farro and Marcona almonds.

You will need every one of these anti-inflammatories after braving spectacularly underestimated waits and high noise levels (what else to expect from a place that does 1,500 covers on a Saturday?). You might even need something more, as I did the time I endured a tot jumping on the banquette next to me and a dad who vainly urged, "Eat your num-nums!" For those nights, you might find that a pomegranate mojito reduces inflammation a little better than juiced kale.

When all is said and done, though, when glasses are empty and almond olive-oil cakes and vegan dark-chocolate puddings have been cleared, you will surely have noticed a difference between this and other restaurants. You still might not know about Dr. Weil's pyramid, but you will have eaten enough of it to realize that so-called health food — kale, tempeh, sea buckthorn, etc. — makes for a satisfying meal. You might not understand why the food has left you full but not uncomfortable, as a friend said, though if you're paying attention, you'll notice the lack of a fryer and the almost complete absence of butter and cream. You might come away wanting to visit Thai Flavor or Pinche Taqueria or Pizzeria Locale for more authentic versions of what you ate, but that's okay. There's room for all sorts of restaurants in the world — and we definitely don't have enough of the thoughtfully healthy kind.

For more photos of True Food Kitchen, go to E-mail the author at [email protected].

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Gretchen Kurtz has worked as a writer for 25 years; during that time she's stomped grapes in Napa, eaten b'stilla in Fez, and baked with Buddy Valastro, aka the Cake Boss. Her work has appeared in publications including Boulevard (Paris), Diversion, the New York Times and Westword. Our restaurant critic since 2012, she loves helping you decide where to eat and drink tonight.
Contact: Gretchen Kurtz