True Food Kitchen brings farm-to-table dining into the mainstream
by Richard Foss
I have had an ongoing argument with a friend about which dining trends are fads and which are permanent. Our most recent point of contention was over farm-to-table style dining. He opined that now that chain restaurants are adopting seasonal dining, hipsters and trend leaders will move on to something else. I argued that once you get used to eating fresh, healthy food, you don’t want to go backward. He shot back that not everybody can dine that way because large operations couldn’t possibly do it well.
And there it rested, because I didn’t have an example of a large franchise operation that had taken that theme and run with it. I do now that I have dined at True Food Kitchen at The Point in El Segundo. The focus on modern ideas about eating is overt, and reflects the philosophy of co-owner and diet guru Andrew Weill and his partners restaurateur Sam Fox and Executive Chef Michael Stebner. Click the “about” tab on their website and the first three sentences mention nutrients, the anti-inflammatory diet, and healthy living. They also mention flavor, which I found reassuring.
The restaurant is a cross between corporate and quirky. The big, high-ceilinged space is softened with wood paneling and tubs of herbs on wheels by the front door. Whether those herbs are actually used in the cooking here or merely symbolic, they’re a statement of purpose. The menu is largely vegetarian or vegan and offers many gluten-free items, but hearty meat and fish dishes are here, too. Many ethnic traditions are represented along with original creations, making this a snapshot of contemporary trends.
We started with a caramelized onion tart and a “kale and avocado dip” that we expected to be guacamole by another name. I only ordered the latter because it listed grapefruit and roasted poblano chilies among the ingredients and I was trying to imagine how those would go together. Guacamole usually contains lemon or lime and often some anaheim chilies. The substitutions made a subtle difference. It was tarter and tangier than typical guac, with the finely chopped kale adding just a hint of texture and vegetable character.
I wouldn’t have ordered the onion tart based on the name, which suggests a simple flatbread with cheese and onion, but the description mentioned smoked garlic and figs with the caramelized onion, gorgonzola and herbs. The flavor balance was surprising, the garlic and onions almost as sweet as the chopped figs. It’s a must-have item if you like roasted garlic in any form.
True Food Kitchen has an interesting selection of beverages, both alcoholic and otherwise. The section called Natural Refreshers includes juice blends that are designed with the flavor balance of a good cocktail. The Medicine Man contained tart sea buckthorn juice along with pomegranate, honey, black tea and soda – sweet, astringent and sour flavors all in balance. It made me want to try more from that list. The fig and pomegranate mule with ginger honey and the sangria were also delightful and the cherry bourbon sour is something I’m going to try to recreate. Floating Pinot Noir on top of a bourbon-based cocktail isn’t standard practice, but it certainly works.
For main courses we selected Moroccan-style chicken, braised bison short rib, a spicy tuna wrap and a daily special of grilled rainbow trout with broccoflower. Rainbow trout are relatively thin fish and can dry out when even slightly overcooked. Sautéing this one might have been a better option. It wasn’t bad, but lacked the moist succulence you can get from perfectly cooked trout.
The ahi wrap wasn’t highly spiced but had sharp flavors thanks to the radish, mint, and sesame that accompanied the mild wasabi aioli. Most spicy tuna sandwiches stick with neutral lettuces or spinach, which adds texture but not much flavor. This approach was much more interesting. It was served with a simple sweet potato and onion hash and a kale and parmesan salad, which made a light, healthy, well-proportioned meal.
The bison and chicken were both heftier portions, but with well-considered flavors and accompaniments. The flavors on the first plate were of fall and winter, with roasted fennel and multicolored carrots alongside swiss chard, mashed cauliflower and the meat itself. The portion of protein looked small at first but was very satisfying. This was a rare preparation where you could taste the difference between bison and beef. There isn’t a huge difference, but bison is richer and slightly sweeter – and a lot better for you thanks to a lower fat content. This preparation keeps it from drying out on a grill and is highly recommended.
The surprising thing about the Moroccan chicken was how faithfully the traditional flavors were executed. The bird had been crusted with spices and served over a mix of spinach, garbanzos, fig and olive with chermoula sauce, made from both fresh and pickled lemon, herbs, oil, garlic, and cumin. When done right it’s a magnificent and complex sauce with sweet, salty, and tart elements. They aced it here.
For dessert our server recommended a flourless chocolate cake and a cranberry-almond cake, both comfort foods. More adventurous desserts were offered, such as a chia seed pudding with banana and coconut, but we trusted her recommendation and were satisfied with the result.
True Food Kitchen delivered on their promise of contemporary, fresh food in the farm-to-table tradition. Their menu changes regularly and is consciously oriented around fresh, healthy foods. The chef may not be hitting the farmers markets every few days and creating the menu around those selections, but the exuberant use of seasonal produce shows that someone is excited by natural flavors and this kitchen can execute their recipes. The fact that these meals come from an assembly line operation rather than a boutique kitchen is a reason for celebration. It proves that excellence is achievable on a large scale.
True Food Kitchen is at 860 S. Sepulveda in El Segundo, in The Pointe center. Open Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. – 9 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. – 10 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. – 10 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m.- 9 p.m.. Parking in lot. Many vegetarian/vegan selections, full bar, corkage $15, patio dining. Wheelchair access good. Reservations accepted. Menu at TrueFoodKitchen.com, (310) 469-7725.