Imagine a restaurant where all your food allergies and dietary restrictions and concerns about making choices that are good for the Earth were the central considerations behind the preparation of every dish.
How would the food taste?
It would probably taste a lot like the food at Nourish, a cafe that's been open in Scottsdale since May 2010. And that's not such a good thing.
Consider owner Kristin Carey's menu, color-coded to indicate the nutritional features of every item. To get the full impact, examine the Optima sandwich: gluten-free (by request), lactose-free, corn-free, egg-free, nut-free, soy-free, vegetarian, and vegan.
Unfortunately, the Optima also turned out to be taste-free. Bland slices of dried-out cucumber, spinach, and tomato were stacked high on barely chewable bread moistened only slightly by a thin layer of lemon-artichoke hummus. The Optima, alongside most of the rest of the items we tried, was a fulfillment of every negative stereotype about health food.
If you're looking to educate yourself about the possibilities of gluten-free eating and allergen avoidance in the restaurant business, then Nourish is the place for you. If, however, you're looking to enjoy a light, healthy meal that also tastes good, I suggest you take your business elsewhere.
Nourish has perhaps bitten off more than it can chew. Carey set out to create a haven for those who feel like "a freak at the table," which is how she describes her own experience as someone with gluten allergies and an aversion to dairy. This haven is pretty expansive: Nourish also offers catering services, grab-and-go lunches, meal plans, educational programs, and an online cooking channel, all aimed at helping people eat healthier while complying with their dietary restrictions.
Our first visit was a weeknight dinner. The restaurant, nestled in the jungle of the Optima Camelview Village luxury condos off Highland Avenue in Scottsdale, was practically empty. But the atmosphere was inviting and warm thanks to friendly, fast service and an open, bright floor plan. Green abounds in the accent paint, and two walls of the dining area are glass, opening up to a patio and numerous plants.
Inside, don't expect to get a whiff of anything frying or baking. The kitchen at Nourish has no open flames or cooktops. All hot items are prepared in a panino maker, low-temperature Alto-Shaam ovens, or air-fryers. The air-fryers are like little electric convection ovens that are heated to around 500 degrees, using hot, moist air to quickly cook your food without any oils.
My dining companion and I were eager to taste the restaurant's organic cocktails, and this was one category at Nourish that didn't disappoint. The ginger and spice was refreshing and original, with a spicy little kick at the end. Nourish makes its own spiced rum, but don't expect much buzz. If you have a sweet tooth and are in the mood for a stronger drink, I recommend the acaí berry martini — clean, crisp, and beautifully presented. A single, perfect raspberry rested at the bottom of the glass, bejeweled by bubbles of the clear, candy-flavored liquid.
Before we knew it, the tapas plate of appetizers was before us. Of the long list of starters, we tried four; the winner by a long shot was the sweet potato and avocado salad, with warm chunks tossed in a tasty Asian dressing. The roasted root veggies were essentially the same idea, but with parsnips and beets. The lemon-srtichoke hummus lacked the chunkiness and chickpea flavor you would expect of the spread, but it tasted good and came with warm triangles of gluten-free garlic pita and a few slices of cucumber and organic baby carrots thrown onto the plate almost as an afterthought, adding nothing to the presentation or taste of the ensemble.
Our final starter choice was a scoop of the Nourish healthy mac and cheese. At first taste, I was pleased: The creamy, comforting noodles were accented with a smooth blend of herbs. As I continued to chew, however, an unpleasant surprise assailed my teeth: hard bits of uncooked macaroni lay hidden within. The little dish was almost good enough to ignore this oversight, but it turned out to be an omen of things to come.
The plump, rosy fillet of wild salmon with pineapple mango salsa that came next was beautifully nestled next to a dune of black and cream quinoa and a pile of what looked to be succulent and vibrantly green asparagus. I was shocked to discover that the asparagus was practically raw and completely unseasoned. The coarseness and bitterness of a couple of pieces were enough to cause me to abandon the vegetable altogether.
But nothing could have prepared me for the shock of the Tuscan chicken pizza. The gluten-free Nourish pizza crusts are made with quinoa flour, chia seed, and a blend of herbs. What arrived on my plate was a dark brown, messy, ragged flatbread-style "pizza" that was unappetizing in every way. Brittle, burnt, and almost tasteless, the crust resembled a cracker more than any sort of dough. Its tattered surface crumbled under the toppings: a dab of bland tomato sauce, bits of sun-dried tomato and spinach, and large chunks of grilled chicken. To be fair, the chicken pieces were juicy and tender, and we picked a few off to enjoy on their own. The whole thing was lightly sprinkled with melted mozzarella and covered with ribbons of pesto mayo that looked like they had just been squeezed out of a tube of Aquafresh.
Our experience with this $15 pizza was so bad, in fact, that I wanted to believe it was a fluke. So, on the next visit I gave it another shot, this time choosing the cheeseburger pizza. But this, too, ended up a waste of money. The crust this time was soggy, drooping under the weight of the toppings. My companion and I could barely eat a quarter of this pizza; the sauce was excessive, the ground beef bits messily scattered over dabbles of cheese, red onion, and pieces of crispy bacon.
On another visit, I went for the classic soup-salad-sandwich combination. When I ordered the Southwest soup, I was not expecting a gazpacho, but the bowl of soup came barely lukewarm. Awkward chunks of tomato and avocado floated atop the watery stew, and some black beans were summoned up from the bottom as we tried to enjoy what was left of the warmth of the liquid.
I savored the barely seared, ruby red slices of fish in the ahi tuna salad that rested delicately at the top of the mound of spinach, carrots, snap peas, and cucumber. The dressing, unfortunately, was poured only over the center, so after gobbling up the delicious slices of tuna and picking through the core of the veggies, I found the rest of it bland. The tuna was covered by one large sheet of ginger and a few slivers of nori, a peculiar touch that was more distracting than delicious.
Due to the awful experience with the Optima, I shied away from choosing another item labeled with all the colors on the menu. The roasted chunk chicken salad sandwich — listed as lactose-free, corn-free, and soy-free — proved a better choice. The bread was much chewier this time, and underneath some layers of greens, we found a chicken salad prepared with fresh herb mayo and mixed with grape slices, candied walnuts, and crispy, juicy bacon.
By far, the best thing I tried at Nourish was the veggie quiche. The thick slice was perfect, its moist and spongy interior filled with veggies and caramelized onions. It was not heavy or oily the way quiche can be, but still quite filling and substantial. Here, the quinoa crust was truly a unique and scrumptious twist. Combined with Nourish's air-fried sweet potato fries and orange chipotle dipping sauce, the dish was one I'd order again, no matter what the calorie count.
On the sweet side, I recommend sticking to the gluten-free baked goods brought in from Julia's GF Bakery, like the moist red velvet cupcake with a generous topping of cream cheese good enough to eat on its own. The Wei of Chocolate brownie was also gluten- and lactose-free, and it resembled a square patty of thickened chocolate batter. The brownie tasted too bitter and looked as if it had just been taken out of a cellophane wrapper and microwaved, with four random chocolate covered espresso beans smushed up against its sides.
Overall, respect is due to Nourish's mission. The back of the menu invites guests to ask for a tour of the kitchen, so we took them up on the offer. On the line, we found friendly cooks and an enthusiastic sous chef who was eager to explain the measures that are taken to prevent cross-contamination of allergens and provide diners with the healthiest items possible. He raved about the air-fryers and the mission of the restaurant and its owner to give the community a place where they can enjoy delicious food without worrying about its adverse effects on "body, mind, or spirit."
That's a lovely sentiment. But when you get down to it, a restaurant is about the food before anything else, and here Nourish has a long way to go before they win my body, mind, spirit — or mouth.