Recently, I was struck by some pleasant surprises at District, a downtown eatery that didn't exactly give me high hopes from the get-go. And this week, I find myself considering the exact opposite kind of place: a restaurant where I couldn't help but have inflated expectations.
In business since late October, True Food Kitchen is the newest original restaurant from Fox Restaurant Concepts, which means it had a full arsenal of hype before it even opened its doors. Unfortunately, that also means it set its own bar unattainably high.
As part of the ongoing overhaul of Biltmore Fashion Park's retail and restaurant mix, True Food Kitchen took over the space that used to be Coffee Plantation and transformed it into a bright, airy spot. As you might expect from restaurateur Sam Fox — who also owns North, Olive & Ivy, and Sauce, among others — it's stylish in ways both big and small, from the matching mini-dress-and-boots uniform of the waitresses to kitchen towels that function as boho-chic napkins. In the kitchen, there's executive chef Michael Stebner, who made the leap from yet another Fox eatery, The Greene House (where I enjoyed his cooking)./p>
True Food Kitchen
True Food Kitchen (at Biltmore Fashion Park), 2502 East Camelback Road
Caramelized onion tart: $9
Sashimi tuna salad: $14
Salmon sandwich: $14
Pacific wild bass: $22
602-774-3488, Web link
Hours: Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Adding to the impressive aura is health and lifestyle guru Dr. Andrew Weil's stamp of approval. Weil partnered with Fox to make True Food a bastion of guiltless pleasures, a place where you can eat food that's "consistent with (Weil's) anti-inflammatory diet." (Weil maintains that chronic inflammation leads to disease, and that the right foods can counteract that.)
Although True Food doesn't call itself a "health food" restaurant per se, it goes overboard in explaining how healthful and Earth-friendly this stuff is, from the local produce in the dishes, to the organic vodka you can add to your antioxidant juice elixir. (Is vodka ever good for you?) On every table, there's even a lengthy, bullet-pointed list outlining virtues like low-glycemic-load soba noodles, antibiotic-free chicken, and minimal use of dairy.
In spite of my weakness for foie gras, I give plenty of thought to nutrition. Really, I do. But this spiel is gratuitous, and I can't help but wonder whether it's supposed to make me feel self-righteous about what I'm eating in order to distract me from its mediocrity — or to justify why it's so pricey.
On my first visit, it was disappointment at first sip. I ordered a six-dollar non-alcoholic drink called the Medicine Man, an "antioxidant blast" that I thought would energize me. A mix of olivello, pomegranate, and cranberry juices, muddled blueberries, black tea, and soda water, it sounded like a concoction that would have a fruity intensity and, perhaps, a caffeine kick. Instead, it was so bland I almost mistook it for water.
Mexican Buddha was also boring, a diluted blend of hibiscus tea, yuzu juice, and soda water, while the Ginger Nojito tasted overwhelmingly of lime juice. In contrast, honey lemonade was delicious, just the right balance of sweetness and citrus-y pucker. That was the only beverage I'd order again, unless True Food decided to add fresh-squeezed juice drinks, à la Jamba Juice.
If I'd only stuck to the appetizers, I might think True Food was a pretty decent place. The caramelized onion tart, a sort of flatbread laden with smoked garlic, Gorgonzola, and figs, was so good it tasted like it was really bad for you — and here, that's saying something. My dining companions and I polished that thing off in minutes.
Prim-sounding edamame dumplings were surprisingly luscious, filled with a buttery soybean purée and steeped in aromatic dashi. Herb hummus was creamy and flavorful, topped with sliced cucumber, ripe tomatoes, red onions, and feta, with a row of puffy pita wedges to scoop it up. Just the right amount of lemon juice, olive oil, and Parmigiano-Reggiano balanced out the fresh bitter greens in the refreshing Tuscan kale salad, while a jumble of baby lettuces, diced raw tuna, avocado, tomato, and cucumber was heightened by a tangy-sweet soy-ginger dressing.
In contrast, the open-faced salmon sandwich was utterly boring — a nice piece of fish with no flavor. The reason I'd ordered it was because of the shiso, lime, avocado, and cilantro aioli that should have dressed it up. Fresh shiso, a distinctive herb used often in Japanese cooking, is irresistible to me, but I didn't get the slightest whiff of it in this dish. A bowl of brown rice, topped with sliced teriyaki tofu, avocado, sesame seeds, and soy-glazed green beans, sweet peas, carrots, and bok choy, was just as pedestrian.
And I wasn't down with the pizza, with cardboard-like crust made from organic flour, spelt, and flax seed. Even when it was embellished with plump shrimp, slivers of roasted red pepper, caramelized onions, and goat cheese, it was still bland as could be. This was the first time in memory that I left pizza crusts on the plate.
The same thing happened with the chicken skin from my roasted half-chicken entrée — it was too rubbery to eat. Ultimately, I liked the succulent meat and the side dishes (sweet farro studded with figs and walnuts, and a heap of roasted squash and Brussels sprouts), but nicely seasoned skin, properly crisped, would've made the dish shine.
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Butternut squash ravioli had potential, but was marred by unevenly cooked pasta — the edges were too al dente, the middles too mushy. I also would've liked more sautéed mushroom topping to balance the sweetness of the squash. Another promising dish was Pacific wild bass, served with a thick white bean stew. The beans, flavored with smoked garlic and preserved lemon, were really mouthwatering, but the fish was overdone.
Disaster came at dessert time with the cranberry-apple crumble, a sickeningly sweet train wreck that never should've left the kitchen. Think cranberry sludge under a heap of brown sugar. There were apples, oats, and sunflower seeds, too, but you couldn't taste them. To add insult to injury, there was a big blob of sugary maple ice cream on top. Blech.
A much more appropriate ending was two scoops of creamy lemon-ginger frozen yogurt, topped with crisp pomegranate seeds — lightly sweet and clean-tasting. I also liked the flavorful, not-too-heavy banana-chocolate tart, with thinly sliced banana layered with chocolate sauce atop a fresh chocolate cookie crust.
Undoubtedly, Dr. Weil's healthful philosophy is a great launching point for creative, delicious food. But at True Food Kitchen, unfortunately, it doesn't quite make it off the ground.