LYFE Kitchen opened at the Irvine Spectrum this weekend. This is the fast-casual concept by a team that includes two former McDonald's execs, featuring a menu designed by Food Network's Jeremy Bringardner, Tal Ronnen, and Art Smith, Oprah's former personal chef. Everything offered is less than 600 calories, contains less than 1,000 milligrams of sodium, and uses every recent food buzzword in existence. It's first of its kind to land in OC. There are already 12 locations scattered through the country, and the company has plans to open about 250 more over the next five years.
I've been to other LYFE Kitchens and there's a consistency and uniformity I'd expect from a corporate outfit. Next to the entrance, there are menus in leaflets customized to whatever your dietary requirements happen to be, whether you're a vegan/vegetarian, gluten-free, or if you can eat "Everything". Above this, there's the Mark Bittman quote: "The food policy that matters most is yours".
Also in every restaurant: a wall of potted herbs, a defining feature more important to the place than Playlands are to McDonald's. Butter and high fructose corn syrup aren't used, but quinoa and kale is, and prodigiously.
There is, of course, no sodas. Instead there are juices, teas, smoothies, and waters flavored with such things as mint and cucumber. I've had the ginger and mint water with chia seeds and strawberries floating in it, and it was quite refreshing. If you want just plain water, there's a spigot that gives you the choice of chilled, sparkling, or "ambient", which is at room-temperature.
Arguably the most popular item is the "unfried chicken" by Smith. I've had the Buffalo wings appetizer version of it and despite not being fried, it was still imbued with a lot of flavor and a surprising hotness. Also served with it were sweet pickles I could've eaten for days by itself, and a dipping sauce of what I had to guess was a yogurt-based version of ranch dressing that I'm not ashamed to say I licked clean.
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There are sandwiches, burgers, salads, flatbreads and soups, including a corn chowder with bits of fresh corn that was better than I expected. Another popular item is a barramundi noodle bowl, and the edamame hummus, which tastes like the act of grazing a neighbor's garden.
407 Spectrum Center Drive, Irvine, CA, United States 92618. (949) 727-1252; http://www.lyfekitchen.com