Seeing Green at True Food Kitchen
Blackened miso cod.
If the past month's dismal performance of the Dow Jones has you spooked on stocks this year, there's good reason. The old trader's axiom that "as January goes, so goes the market" has proved accurate more often than not. Perhaps your money would be better off in commodities or bonds — or better yet, restaurants that sell lots of vegetables. Because if January's action at True Food Kitchen is any indicator, 2014 is going to be a stellar year for the new Preston Hollow restaurant.
True Food landed in Preston Center last November by way of Phoenix-based Fox Restaurant Concepts, which is responsible for more than a dozen restaurant brands in the Southwest and beyond. Most of those restaurants focus on almost-can't-fail menus including red sauce Italian, high-end burgers and tacos. Their True Food Kitchen, though, takes more of a risk, offering its diners promises of well being and good health — two qualities that are rarely associated with delicious for most diners.
Fox Concepts worked with Dr. Andrew Weil, who advocates an anti-inflammatory diet high in produce, whole grains and fish, and who packed the menu with antioxidants, fresh vegetables and lean proteins. A website for the restaurant was loaded with reassuring phrases such as "try the kale and quinoa, you'll live longer," and "drink the seabuckthorn and acai, you'll feel better." And while statements like those may rustle the FDA (and force you to surf the Internet to learn about berry-producing deciduous plants from the Mediterranean and Asia), True Food Kitchen has a dining room full of customers devouring the mantra like rabbits at a kale farm.
Lunch on a late Monday afternoon? It's packed, with a 30-minute wait. Come on a Friday night and you'll have a hard time finding a place to stand, let alone somewhere to sit. There are no reservations unless you're in a party of eight or more, so a hostess will hand you one of those flickering, buzzing gizmos to pocket as you muscle your way to the bar. The stools at the adjacent communal tables are first come, first served, too, and they're a decent place to eat if you don't want to wait an hour. They also put you at the center of all the action.
Set your Pintrest boards to "farmhouse-pantry chic." Three massive drum shades conceal light fixtures in a dining room decked out in weathered wood. Leather bench seating pops in bright green. Maple tables are packed in tight, and the space does its best to shrug off the floor-to-ceiling windows that offer a view of the usually full parking lot. Most eyes are trained on the kitchen, anyway, which is well lit and as open as any kitchen in Dallas. From the bar and even from the dining room behind it, you can see whirring juicers, glancing knives and the Cambro containers of prepped ingredients that line the back wall. The walk-in has windows along the side so you can peer in on bins of mushrooms, onions and other vegetables, while baskets of potatoes, ginger and other staples jut out into the seating area. Diners aren't looking at the kitchen as much as watching from within it. You could reach out and touch the lemons if you wanted to. (Please don't.)
Those ingredients will lose some of their mystique when they land on your plate, but there are some dishes you'll be happy to find in front of you. Finely diced salmon, dressed in Greek yogurt and served with strips of pita cooked to a sturdy crunch, makes for a good starter, as does seared tuna served with soft avocado and ponzu that's billed as tataki. Neither will leave you with that weighed-down feeling that makes you wonder if you should just skip to dessert.
A vegetable crudité, by comparison, requires sincere commitment, because while it may take a million raw vegetable bites to fill you up, it takes far fewer to bore you. Tzatziki and a black olive puree make the third and fourth radish less of a chore, but this dish works best for tables of four.
The turkey lasagna and the low-carb, gluten-free spaghetti squash casserole that is on four of every five tables are both hearty plates with just enough cheese to make them satisfying. They're both affordable too.
Black cod glazed in miso is perfectly cooked, served on a bed of mushrooms and flanked with barely wilted bok choy. It's an elegant plate but it's still simple — exactly the sort of dish you might picture yourself cooking at home if you had just a little more time, which you don't, or at least don't think you do, which is why this place is always so packed.
True Food may be just another restaurant to some of the diners who are chomping on bison burgers or forking their way through a pizza, but to others it's the restaurant to come to when they don't feel like cooking at home and they're tired of getting burger bombed everywhere else. It's lower-guilt dining (there's still plenty of butter) that doesn't eat like hippy-dippy health food.
Maybe that explains why they're overlooking the gummy texture in their edamame dumplings, which is upsetting on its own, but even more so after you've watched a cook by the window assemble them by hand. Red chile shrimp boast noodles with the same overcooked texture, and the thick sauce it swims in is about as subtle as maple syrup. The execution can be a little shoddy here at times.
There are service issues, too. True Food may be one of the few restaurants whose kitchen outpaces the front-end staff by the factor of an entire drink order. Dishes consistently arrive lightning-quick here, which is great, but during one of my visits my wine hit the table as I was picking at the crumbs of an onion tart I ordered to go with it. And a second requested glass didn't come at all.
Sticky pasta is one thing, but not too many businesses can get away with dodgy service and stay this busy, which shows the demand for restaurants that don't deep-fry half their menu and blanket the rest in a quilt of melting cheese. For now, anyway, diners are so hungry for food that doesn't punch them in the gut they're willing to overlook flaws that cook other restaurants to a crisp.
Not that you should cash out your 401k. Everyone knows that the service industry is a terrible way to make money. But maybe for existing restaurateurs who have been looking for a new idea, it's time to get long on leafy greens.
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