When True Food Kitchen opened last summer, I had two questions: Who is brave enough to take on the massive Fashion Island space vacated by Blue Coral, and why is health guru Dr. Andrew Weil, originally known for his progressive stance on mind-altering drugs, getting into the restaurant business?
After wriggling through eager crowds on every visit, it’s clear Fox Restaurant Concepts, the Phoenix-based operating group, knows how to fill a high-volume venue. Lunch is busy with snappily dressed office types from Newport Center firms. Dinner buzzes with knots of pals and date couples. Brunch is a parade of generations, and there are plenty of peckish shoppers at every time slot.
Are these followers of the snowy-bearded Weil? No matter, though the menu adheres to his anti-inflammatory food pyramid for optimum nutrition and healthy aging: loads of fruits and vegetables (ideally, organic), lots of whole grains, legumes, fish, soy foods, and green teas, with sparing amounts of lean proteins and dark chocolate.
Translating Weil’s nutritional blueprint into tempting fare is the job of executive chef Michael Stebner, whose menu of globe-spanning dishes is far more intriguing than the good doctor’s chaste dietary directives. There’s nothing wrong with reducing inflammation with unlimited amounts of cooked Asian mushrooms, but butter lettuce cups with ginger, cashews, toasted garlic, tofu, and shiitakes are a far tastier, more inviting way to go about it.
Starters, salads, pizzas, and sandwiches are menu staples all day, with extra items added for dinner and weekend brunch. Perhaps the showiest appetizer is the color-rich array of fresh vegetables atop a heap of crushed ice. Dipping the crunchy crudités in tzatziki, and black olive tapenade adds a bit of dimension, but not enough to halt wisecracks about Peter Rabbit in Mr. McGregor’s garden. It’s hardly fine dining, but the happy locavores here don’t seem to mind.
The best starters easily surpass that head-turning tribute to farming and ice-making. Nicely configured, with strong notes of umami, the caramelized onion tart (more a crisp flatbread) plays sweet black figs against salty Gorgonzola against mellowed onions, with a coy wink of smoked garlic. House-smoked salmon, tossed in herb-spiked Greek yogurt for scooping with pita triangles, is supersatisfying and easy to share with my Sunday brunch trio.
Skinny ladies who lunch have some heavenly choices in the salad department. A bright chop of sweet mango, crisp apple, rich avocado, and tangy manchego cheese barely needs white chicken meat in its intricate mix of tastes and textures.Aromatic Marcona almonds and a lilting Champagne vinaigrette round out the seductive whole. Fluffy shreds of deep-green kale dusted with bread crumbs, zingy with lemon, and salty with Parmesan have the chewy heft that makes this power green alluring to even the salad-averse. Too-stingy wedges of heirloom tomatoes couldn’t diminish the sensational watermelon salad with morsels of mild goat cheese, golden cashews, and fruity olive oil. Versions of this salad are common, yet this one stands out thanks to its pure, clean flavors. I’m surprised to see the dish in November from a kitchen that touts seasonal eating, but it’s gone now and sure to return in summer.
Of the four sandwiches, I sampled two dreary efforts. The wild ahi sliders taste blah and squishy, and the TLT, with tempeh slices (cultured soybean loaf), may be highly nutritional, but it’s lacking in flavor.
Skip those yawners in favor of the more satisfying entrées. Panang chicken curry is ably executed, warm and filling over brown rice with potato, broccoli, and carrot in a coconut milk-rich sauce perfumed with ginger and lemongrass. A steaming stir-fry of tender natural beef and black (deep purple, really) rice gets musky support from shiitake mushrooms, and sparkle from scallions. Ricotta ravioli rounds are gentle and comforting; the fresh cheese filling gets oomph from maitake mushrooms and a sauce of loose kale pesto. A trio of steak tacos doesn’t skimp on the beef or cheese, though the tomatillo sauce needs more heat. The menu’s priciest dish, miso-glazed black cod with Asian mushrooms ($24), is as good, if smaller, as many others out there. But the bok choy on the side is tastier than most.
It’s heartening to see a dessert menu here, but few impress. The seasonal fruit crumble is a winner, but I’m still trying to forget the banana chocolate tart’s dusty mesquite flour crust. There are plenty of ways to have a little something extra, thanks to a creative carte of upscale teas and house-made quenchers such as the honeydew, mint, and lime refresher. Or, indulge in one of the ace, inventive cocktails—I’ve fallen for the Peace Maker’s blend of whiskey, black tea, and honey lemon syrup, but before that the ginger margarita had me at “¡Hola!” A respectable list of value-heavy wines sells by the glass ($6 to $12) or bottle ($24 to $48). Beer and sake options are fewer, but select.
Wholly transformed from its Blue Coral days, the vast 300-seat space drips with lean, green design elements. I mean green in the chromatic sense—every shade adorns wall tiles to upholstery to plush cushions at the outdoor fire pit. One side of the canopied patio even sports a living wall of thousands of mixed succulents. It’s calmer outdoors but more of a hike for the pleasant young wait staff. Some servers lack polish, such as the sweet ingénue who asked, “What do you want me to do with that?” when we set our own wine on the table.
The term “true food” is deceptively simple and obscures that Weil’s New Age nutrition is laden with labels—anti-this, whole-that, organic-whatever. I’m just relieved that a skilled chef is making culinary sense of all those caveats, serving cuisine even skeptical diners find clever and pleasing. I do confess to frequently having read Weil’s writings in High Times magazine back in the day, never expecting to intersect with him in my future restaurant travels. What a long, strange trip it’s been.
Shiitake mushroom tofu lettuce cups, caramelized onion tart, smoked salmon, kale salad, chopped chicken salad, tomato-and-watermelon salad, wild mushroom-and-kale pizza, beef stir-fry, chicken curry, ricotta ravioli, black miso cod, fruit crumble, cocktails.
Lunch, $6 to $24; brunch, $3 to $14.
Patio banquettes or fire pit seating.
451 Newport Center Drive
Photographs by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue.