It’s a wonderful LYFE
By Christina Macabenta-Dunham
“Eat Good. Feel Good. Do Good.” touts Chicago-based LYFE Kitchen. The brainchild of a former investment banker and veteran fast-food execs, LYFE (which stands for Love Your Food Everyday) aims to transform the casual, quick-service dining landscape by offering food that’s fast, affordable, and heart-healthy. The company’s leadership reads like a who’s who of the food, restaurant, and entertainment industry, and includes two world renowned chefs, Art Smith and Tal Ronen, both of whom have worked with Oprah Winfrey.
Last October, LYFE opened its flagship restaurant in Palo Alto, just a few blocks from Stanford Shopping Center at 167 Hamilton Avenue, to the delight of vegans and bon viveurs alike. The menu boasts vegan and gluten-free items in addition to more traditional fare like fish tacos and burgers.
My mission du jour is to sample the Spring Menu, so I drag my gourmand friend Matthew Singer (who used to run the catering department at the California Culinary Academy) to help me decipher the flavors and textures we are about to experience.
It’s a sunny day in the South Bay, and all the doors to LYFE’s patio area are swung wide open, letting the cool breezes in. Inside, a wall of herbs – planted by none other than the CEO’s wife and prominently positioned by the counter – offers a bit of whimsy and provides fresh harvest for mint, garlic chives, lemongrass, basil, tarragon, and thyme.
The interior is a successful blend of industrial elements and warm contemporary pieces — exposed cement-block walls and stainless steel table bases with bamboo chandeliers and cushioned banquettes — giving the space a clean, comfortable feel. Custom orange, olive and gunmetal sectionals in the formal part of the dining area can be re-arranged as events dictate. A larger than life black-and-white photo of ruler-straight rows of lettuce receding toward the horizon dominates one wall. Carissa Ashman, Community Relations Coordinator and our host for the day, tells me that if you look closely, you’ll notice it isn’t one expansive field, but rather two sides of a mirror image.
She also informs us that Tal happens to be around, an unexpected bonus. Author of the New York Times bestselling cookbook, The Conscious Cook, Tal is best known for his vegan chef-d’oeuvre and was Oprah’s chef during her 21-day vegan cleanse. I request to sample his favorite dish, Tal’s Ancient Grain Bowl, which – from the website photo – appears to be served with succulent sirloin tips.
Here’s the thing – I love red meat. Dinner at my house often includes fatty cuts of steak, rib-eye being my favorite. Sundays mean bacon and eggs. On special request and cajoling, I will prepare grilled wild salmon to appease my gluten-free, fitness fanatic husband.
But LYFE eschews artery-clogging cuisine. Here, nothing is fried, including the Sweet Potato Fries, and all of the menu items are less than 600 calories per serving. The kitchen doesn’t stock butter, cream, or high fructose corn syrup, and the chefs use very little salt to flavor the dishes.
So I prepare my taste buds for the sampling and make note of the location of the salt & pepper shakers, as the staff begins to bring out one item after another. We take sips of the cucumber-mint water and pineapple-coconut-lime juice. Matthew decides the former is too flat for his taste, and claims the glass of juice for himself. I happen to favor the cucumber-water’s simplicity and gladly take it.
First, we try the Sweet Corn Chowder. Tal points out that it’s made with dairy-free cashew cream, a rich and silky cashew puree that can substitute for milk or cream in a variety of recipes. It’s hearty and satisfying, although Matthew feels it could use just a bit more seasoning. I master the reflexive urge to reach for the salt shaker and continue to savor the soup.
Next, they bring out the Spring Pea and Broccolini Flatbread and Edamame Hummus. Made with multi-grains and flax seed, the flatbread is topped with green peas, roasted mushrooms, and broccolini, with a garnishing of purple chive blossoms, lemon zest and sherry sauce. Matthew notes, “Good flavor, nice texture, and just a hint of zing that hits you in the back of the throat.”
The Edamame Hummus comes with toasted flax crackers, cucumber chips, cherry tomatoes and radishes, dusted with a burnt-orange spice. I couldn’t tell what it was, and it didn’t impart much flavor to the dish. Paprika, perhaps? The hummus by itself seems a bit bland, but with the flax crackers, it sings.
We sample the Beet & Forbidden Rice Salad next. Tossed with a colorful medley of organic field greens, black rice, roasted golden beets, muscat grapes, chopped celery, walnuts, cranberries, red onion, basil and drizzled with maple-sherry vinaigrette, the salad is scrumptious, with just the right balance of sweetness, sourness and crunch.
By far, one my personal favorites is the Fish Taco. Lightly grilled Mahi is topped with chayote slaw, avocado, chipotle aioli, cilantro, and chipotle vinaigrette on corn tortillas. It’s tough not to wolf down the entire taco, to ensure I have room for the rest of the tasting.
Matthew is already crunching on the Crispy Gardein Chicken Sandwich, with shishito pepper relish, romaine, tomato, onion and spicy mayo. As I reach for it, I confirm with Carissa that it’s not real chicken, but in fact Gardein, a vegan alternative to meat. A portmanteau of garden and protein, Gardein is made from soy, wheat and pea proteins, as well as vegetables and grains like quinoa, amaranth, millet and kamut. While flavorful, the patty is a little too dry for me, and I put it down after one bite.
The Quinoa Crunch Wrap, made with whole-wheat tortilla, leafy greens, avocado, edamame hummus, black rice and adzuki beans, left little impression on me, but the chili-sauce… wow. It is sugar and spice and everything nice. They ought to bottle that and sell in on the supermarket shelves, along with all the other frozen LYFE entrees.
The last three dishes are menu must-haves: Roasted Loch Duart Scottish Wild Salmon, Art’s Unfried Chicken, and Tal’s Ancient Grain Bowl. The salmon, simple and tasty, is served on a bed of baby kale, cranberries, farro, pomegranate, pickled onions and maple-chipotle dressing. Art’s Unfried Chicken, coated in a breadcrumb-parmesan crust, is perfectly oven baked – crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside.
The last dish, my special request, is Tal’s Ancient Grain Bowl. I am disappointed to find out it isn’t served with sirloin tips, but rather stir-fried Gardein. Surprisingly, I couldn’t tell the difference. Disappointment gives way to delight, as the Gardein’s texture is firm and succulent, like a lean cut of beef. Even Matthew is impressed, observing that the cabbage adds a nice sweetness to the dish.
Just when we think we are done, Executive Chef Jeremy Bringardner, brings out dessert. He is charged with developing the restaurant menu, and is contemplating on adding Chocolate Budino to the list. A thick and creamy concoction made with dark chocolate, coconut milk and sweetened with agave nectar, Matthew swoons over the Budino, stating that the pomegranate and chia seed jam added a great overall texture. I wonder out loud if perhaps a dash of sea salt would complement the sweetness. Tal and Jeremy look at each other, and nod their heads in approval.
If you can’t make it out to LYFE’s Palo Alto location, head over to your closest Costco and bring home one of their gourmet soups or family-sized entrees. Here’s a link to the map of Costco locations: http://www.lyfekitchen.com/where-to-buy.aspx.
If you can, schedule a trip soon and bring your appetite. Overall, the dishes are delicious, the portions are generous, and the prices are affordable. With menu items topping out at $14.99, LYFE offers something delightful for everyone, even a carnivore like me.