First Look: True Food Kitchen

The health-conscious concept swings and misses

We were sitting outside True Food Kitchen at Lenox Square, sniffing the potted herbs while we waited for a table. Two women walked out, and I asked them how the food was.

"Oh, it was wonderful, just wonderful," one of them said.

"What makes it wonderful?" I asked.

"You can get gluten-free stuff," the other woman said. "We live in a small town where you can't find anything gluten-free, so it was very exciting for us."

Gluten-free or not, I encountered only a few dishes at this new chain restaurant that weren't seriously subpar. The gimmick is the "anti-inflammatory diet" developed by Andrew Weil, the MD famous for his advocacy of integrative medicine, which combines traditional treatments with complementary ones such as acupuncture, homeopathy, and, of course, nutrition. He makes a lot of money selling products, too, and is financially invested in True Food.

The anti-inflammatory diet has nothing to do with losing weight. It means you eliminate food that contributes to irritation and inflammation of your internal organs. The menu accents vegetarian food, of course, but there are chicken, fish, and seafood dishes as well.

The best thing I've tasted is the pizza, which seems odd for health food. It has a nearly crisp crust (gluten-free available) and savory toppings. I tried the one with chicken sausage, fennel, and fontina cheese. I'm a fennel freak and was glad to see the kitchen doesn't hold back in its use. Nice, clear flavors all around, though I thought the crust was a bit overdosed with tomato sauce. There's also a Margherita pizza and two garlicky ones topped with eggplant and corn or wild mushrooms.

Second-best was a starter of simple, crunchy crudités — radishes, celery, cauliflower, cherry tomatoes, and the like, served in a large bowl with both tzatziki and olive dips. The latter was a unique, mustardy sauce with a strong undercurrent of black olives. It grew on me. It meets buzzword standards like "organic" and "sustainable." Everything here is supposed to.

Next best was a starter "tart" that isn't really a tart in any conventional sense. It's pizza-like flat bread topped, classically, with smoked garlic, bits of black figs, and dots of Gorgonzola. Granted, the kitchen is stingy with the toppings, but you don't want to get all bloated before you waddle to your car with your newly uninflamed kidney. Get it with a cocktail. Then maybe go home.

The mediocrity of the former dishes plunged further with three entrees, disappointing enough to inflame the brain and redden the eyes with annoyance. The worst was a bowl of sesame noodles with shrimp, Chinese broccoli, spinach, and shiitake mushrooms. The bowl was grotesquely drowned in a sauce with utterly no spiciness despite its name of "red chili shrimp." The shrimp were mealy, the dark sauce was over-salted, and, weirdly, a bizarrely strong sweetness emerged from the bottom of the bowl. I thought I might be hallucinating, but a dinner companion confirmed the flavors. I should admit, though, that he liked the dish. Salt and sugar (or stevia or whatever) magnetize the average American palate.

His own dish, a spaghetti-squash casserole, was little better. The squash and fresh mozzarella were rendered utterly tasteless by another flood of tomato sauce. He topped it with a chicken breast, emblazoned with those perfectly crisscrossed grill lines. In a blind taste test, it might be mistaken for mystery meat.

Dessert was a refreshing banana pudding dotted with the trendy new life-preserving ingredient, chia seeds. That's right — the seeds of the sprouts that were germinated on the backs of terra-cotta "chia pets" in the late '70s. Remember? Google, then.

What's good here? The aesthetics. Presentation of most dishes is right-on. The dining room is a looker with comfy seating at community and individual tables, many of which back up to vegetable-green banquettes. The kitchen is a big open space that adds to the glow of blond wood above your head and below your feet. There's state-of-the-art juicing equipment. You can add complex or simple juices to your cocktail, or drink them straight up. My virgin melon-mint soda hit the spot. The wine list has earned raves. Finally, the service gets an A-plus.

True Food's neighbor, in the front of the mall, is Zinburger Wine and Burger Bar. Looming nearby is a Cheesecake Factory, which may render True Food a gourmet treat. Zinburger and True are both are among 15 brands operated by the same Phoenix, Ariz.-based company, Fox Restaurant Concepts.

Maybe the eatery, part of Lenox Square's restaurant expansion, will improve. Is it too much to expect after a month that the food should be far better? We can be grateful for the reduced inflammation of our internal organs, but the palate deserves better.

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