True Food Kitchen Stays True to Its (Pretentious) Name
I admit it: I had a chip on my shoulder going into True Food Kitchen. What a presumptuous name! Reading the marketing material announcing the Fashion Island restaurant earlier this year didn’t help, either. Here’s a sampling of the doublespeak: “True Food Kitchen celebrates the simple, pure flavors of quality local and regional ingredients with a menu that tastes great while nourishing your mind, body and spirit.” How else to take that vague and smug-filled statement but with derision?
And the menu. Olivello juice? Sounds like something from Snape’s cabinet at Hogwarts, doesn’t it? The website says the juice is extracted from sea buckthorn berries, a nectar purported to have “powerful natural anti-oxidants and other protective phytonutrients.” Chew on that mouthful for a minute—and then try to swallow the claim that it’s the only restaurant in the country to offer it.
Then there was True Food’s connection to Dr. Andrew Weil, whom you’ve probably seen on magazine covers and Larry King Live proselytizing on the subject of integrative medicine, the field he pioneered and parlayed into best-selling books. If you think you’ve never heard of the guy, Google him, and you’ll realize you have.
But a doctor as a restaurateur? This was a line I had hoped would never be crossed.
So, imagine my surprise when I found myself at the new Newport Beach restaurant (the second in the country) thoroughly enjoying a meal.
Truth is I was discombobulated from the get-go. The chip on my shoulder began to whittle down when I entered the dining room: a spring garden set indoors, sunlight pouring in from holes in the ceiling, plants at every turn. What wasn’t colored bright lemon yellow was bright lime green. The hostess handed out beepers from a topiary podium. Servers wore the whitest of white shirts. And in the center of it all was a juice bar with stacks of colorful fruit and veggies on which butterflies would feel right at home.
I’ll try to restrain myself from overusing the word “refreshing” here, but it’s just so appropriate to almost every aspect of my experience—especially the food. Take the chicken chopped salad—a crunchy, bright-as-summer, well-put-together mix of mango, manchego cheese, avocado, apple, shatteringly crisp marcona almonds, lettuce and chicken.
The components are cut uniformly so that multiple flavors fit easily on each forkful, and all of it wears a champagne-based dressing so light it’s invisible. In the bowl, I found strips of chicken that, for once, tasted like chicken should taste—perfectly poached, devoid of fiber and moist on a molecular level.
Get this one over the heirloom tomato and watermelon. The latter will prove once and for all that goat cheese goes very well with juicy summer fruits, but to order it after knowledge of the chicken chopped salad’s existence is like resorting to dog-paddling when jet-skiing is available.
I’d also skip the shrimp dumplings, a gingery but ultimately pedestrian rendition. Opt for the hamachi starter. Billed as “Today’s Raw Fish,” this is a true crudo, sliced razor-thin, drizzled with yuzu and embellished with raw snow peas micro-sliced into confetti. It may be the first, but not the last, time you will encounter a raw vegetable as an integral component of a dish.
The caramelized onion tart—a pizza-like rectangle the size and shape of a standard letter envelope—uses almost-raw garlic slices. The garlic is the most invigorating part of the appetizer; it does a number on your breath, but that’s a small price to pay for the sugary, juicy figs also baked into the tart.
But it was the barely cooked sugar snap peas in the halibut entrée that communicated the True Food mission statement far better than any New Age PR-speak: Do as little as possible to a good ingredient, and it will become both flavorful and healthy. Also on the plate with the peas: asparagus and wedges of purple Peruvian potato, both the best versions of themselves and honoring the perfectly cooked, buttery hunk of fish.
After being indoctrinated by the food at dinner, I returned the next morning for brunch. I spooned up a nicely spiced panang curry ladled like stew over a bowl of brown rice. The coconut-milk gravy soaked into the grains so quickly it turned the dish into an unintended but delicious Thai risotto. Then I poured real maple syrup over yogurt-topped, ethereally fluffy Johnny cakes made from quinoa.
I even ended up sipping the olivello juice in an elixir named after Dr. Weil. I found it immensely, yes, refreshing—like a fizzy, non-alcoholic passion-fruit-juice cocktail almost worth its $5 cost. If this is what “protective phytonutrients” taste like, then I guess I can put up with a little smug-speak.
True Food Kitchen at Fashion Island, 451 Newport Center Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 644-2400; foxrc.com/ true_food_kitchen.html. Open Mon.–Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri., 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sat., 8 a.m.-11 p.m. (brunch served until 3 p.m.); Sun., 8 a.m.-9 p.m. (brunch served until 3 p.m.). Entrées, $12-$24.
This review appeared in print as "Stay True to Your Food: Don’t let the name or the New Age gobbledygook scare you off: True Food Kitchen lets the ingredients speak, and they do so in volumes."
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