My Huffington Post readers are well aware that I abhore any thing or any place smacking of the words healthy, low cal or no cal, diet, or even in most cases, organic. My mantra is delicious, great ingredients, fabulous flavors, exquisite tastes and stunning visual presentation. Fifty years of writing about food and restaurants and I never wavered. 'Til now. You see, about three months ago I read several books and New York Times articles about the dangers of... wheat! Yes, that ingredient which grows on the prairies and whose flour makes bread, pasta, cakes and cookies. It seems that wheat is alien to the human digestive system and is causing untold discomfort and even disease to millions upon millions of unsuspecting people like you and me. On a whim and after a stomachache, I decided to try the wheat-free or gluten-free (almost the same thing) concept for a little while. Anything that says gluten-free is also wheat free. So, for the past three months I have skipped all of that delicious crunchy LaBrea Bakery bread, al dente pasta, and chocolate cake which constituted a good part of my regular diet. As a result, I DO feel better... alimentary-wise and psychologically... proud of myself for being able to do it, especially in my profession. Of course, I cannot be so rigid that when Chef Gino Angelini of RivaBella offers me a taste of his scrumptuous meat-laced lasagna with béchamel sauce, I hesitate to take a forkful... or two. But all in all, I have been careful... and have lost ten pounds in the process. (If I gave up drinking hard spirits and wine, I'd lose a lot more... but that's asking too much.) My shopping cart at Trader Joe's on Saturday now contains gluten-free bread and bagels, corn tortillas, rice noodles, even gluten-free pizza, pancakes and waffles. Lentils, beans, all good for you. I do find myself eating more sautéed vegetables, especially mushrooms and bok choy, snacking on Persian cucumbers, baby carrots and celery. More fruit. Along with this regime, I have abandoned my gallons of coffee after lunch and taken up herb teas since my doctor told me that my habitual insomnia may be caused by an excess of caffeine in my system... in coffee, chocolate and the like.
And now I have discovered a restaurant which caters to my new lifestyle... and how! Friend Freddie Levinson has been telling me about this restaurant in Santa Monica which has healthy food which is really delicious... and it went in one ear and out the other. Until he mentioned that it was co-founded by Dr. Andrew Weil, and my ears perked up. He's that white-bearded guru whom I have watched on numerous TV shows and read about in articles, once interviewed, and always talking about his anti-inflammatory diet. The more I currently read about medical breakthroughs, the more I see that inflammation contributes to many ailments. So I went with Fred to TRUE FOOD KITCHEN (395 Santa Monica Place (310) 593-8300.) It's right on the ground floor of that huge shopping mall on 2nd Street between Colorado and Broadway. From Beverly Hills, take the 10 Freeway to the 5th street exit, go to Colorado, left to 2nd, right and valet park. I do think that the $10 valet charge is excessive and told True Kitchen General Manager Jon Augustin my feelings; he explained it was a sore point with the mall management. But once I enter the sprawling, open, attractive restaurant and settle into a seat in the back or occasionally on the terrace, I am content. There are a long row of seats at the front counter, but I want to spread out and chat with my attractive servers. They have a full bar which uses organic rums and gins, but unless I am accompanied by a designated driver (usually my patient date), I stick to a Cucumber Refresher ($5) or Honey Lemonade ($4). Though the Medicine Man drink is also intriguing, called an anti-oxidant blast: at $6, it contains Sea Buckthorn, Pomegranate, Cranberry, Black Tea and Soda.
By now, the servers, hopefully led by the charming Pauline, know to bring me a half-bowl of Vegetable Crudites ($13 full, $6 half) 'cause I just love the two sauces in deep bowls accompanying it. I can do without the Black Olive one but the white Tzatziki is a killer... and goes on almost everything I subsequently order. If I'm hungry I will then order either a grass-fed Bison Burger -- which comes with Umami (I kid you not, that's what the menu says; I didn't know there actually was such an ingredient, and there really isn't -- here it is nutritional yeast flakes, garlic and olive oil spread), mushrooms, onion, mayo, Parmesan on a toasted gluten-free bun ($16). On the side is sweet potato hash and sautéed kale. One bite of each and I never had another, though the kale is tolerable. Weil doesn't believe in eating processed beef, but bison is fine for the moment. Or a Turkey Burger ($12) -- provolone, lettuce, tomato, avocado, mayo -- on the same gluten-free bun. I am a fan of their Asian Vegetable Salad ($11), made with kelp noodles, asparagus, mushrooms, with a ginger vinaigrette. Sipping on a bowl of Miso Soup ($4) to start is a given. They feature fresh Monterey Bay Sardines ($10) in the menu, so unusual and succulent, served with a salsa verde and grilled lemons. (Sardines, along with wild salmon and halibut, are fish favored for their omega oil content.) Ever had a gluten-free pizza? You may not believe this, but in this place I prefer it to the regular one... the Margherita ($12), the Chicken Sausage ($13), the Wild Mushroom ($13), my favorite, and the Asparagus & Artichoke ($12). Thin crust, fresh ingredients, another must.
I am still exploring the menu, but some of my favorites are the Albacore Escabeche ($12), the raw slivers of fish dressed with citrus, avocado, cilantro, chili and scallions. The 10 entrees are intriguing and I find myself gravitating to the Shirataki Noodles ($13), gluten-free noodles green curry, peas, asparagus, oyster mushrooms and cashews. Fish-lovers will enjoy the Grilled Rainbow Trout ($20), with cauliflower, spinach, fennel, capers, olives and lemon. I prefer the seafood soup, Seafood Caldo ($19), sea bass, shrimp, collard greens, white beans, cilantro, in a sparkling chili and lime broth. The dinner entrée of Roasted Chicken ($19) is somewhat overcooked but tasty, obviously from a free-range bird, with farro, spinach, cranberry and walnuts. Pan-Seared Sea Bass ($24), Grilled Steelhead Salmon ($24), and Red Curry Shrimp ($18) are other seafood entrees. They offer a selection of Street Tacos, veggie for $8 and steak or sea bass ($16). I have not yet tasted the very popular Spaghetti Squash Casserole ($13), although Manager Jon tells me that it is gluten-free and very tasty. So many other exciting, succulent dishes to choose from: Thai Shrimp Dumplings ($12), Grilled Albacore Tuna Sliders ($15), and a fabulous Panang Curry, gluten-free, with brown rice, potato, broccoli, ginger, carrot, mushroom, in a coconut shellfish broth... with tofu, $15, chicken $16, $17 for shrimp, which I prefer. Oh yes, the lemon tarte dessert is subtly a wonder, as is the flourless chocolate cake and olive oil cake.
Alternate medicine honcho Dr. Andrew Weil joined with veteran Phoenix restaurateur Samuel Fox in October 2008 to open the first True Food Kitchen in that Arizona city. Since then, they have opened six of them, with locations in Newport and San Diego in California. He once told me that he advocates fresh, local "anti-inflammatory food" and shows everyone a pyramid of such foods, with lots of veggies and fruits at the base (unlimited raw Asian mushrooms, which I love), followed with fish, beans, avocados, spices, food supplements, red wine... with a dollop of dark chocolate at the apex. He recently said that he used the newly hailed Mediterranean diet as the basis for his pyramid.
I initially was skeptical of his claim that this diet will mitigate against a panoply of ailments, from heart disease to cancer, Parkinson's and many more... but in recent years I have learned that his pseudo-science has more truth to it than I had acknowledged, and now I am a 'believer.' But don't let this New-Age medicine get in the way of your enjoying a host of wonderful, delicious dishes at this restaurant. In fact, I question whether most people eating here even know of the medical reasoning behind it... they just enjoy the tasty drinks, both healthy and/or alcoholic, and the appetizers and entrees. And this place is extremely attractive in a bare-bones kind of farmhouse way, with open windows and high ceilings. There is a small living plant on every dining table. (And very attractive, clean restrooms.) The prices are reasonable, the yogi-clad servers are all polite, knowledgeable, attractive and fun to be around. (Thankfully, unlike its neighbor, Seasons 52, it doesn't talk about calorie counts... ughh. Losing weight is a byproduct of eating healthy, not a reason to eat.) I just ordered via Amazon a copy of the Weil-Fox-Michael Stebner cookbook, True Food: Seasonal, Sustainable, Simple, Pure, which hit number one on the New York Times' best-seller list with sales of over a hundred thousand copies so far. I was amused that funding for new units was coming from a lending facility of P.F. Chang, remembering my recent Huffington Post review of old friend Paul Fleming's steak house chain. The lender recently exercised an option to acquire a major interest in the True Food brand.
Dining healthy is more than a three-month experiment for me. I think I will more or less stick to it for awhile, since I find that I feel better and more lively. No, it's not being a vegetarian, but rather being a flexitarian,' eating an international selection of healthy, delicious dishes. I won't forego great dishes by master chefs in wonderful restaurants; I'll just parcel them out a bit more carefully.
True Food Kitchen hours: Monday-Thursday, 11:30 am to 9 pm. Friday 11:30 am to 10 pm; Saturday is 10 am to 10 pm, while Sunday is 10 am to 9 pm.
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