Fitting healthy food into a quick-service concept is not as simple as it seems
By Richard Foss (email@example.com)
If you ask people about the things they like in a restaurant experience, character is likely to be on the list. If you look at what people actually do, you get a different story.
As much as culinary enthusiasts like me dislike the fact, chain restaurants rule the marketplace. Their food isn’t thrilling, but it’s consistent — and that’s what people really want. When a category of dining gets its own chain, that’s when it starts losing character and making money.
In the last few decades healthy dining has gone from quirky to mainstream, and there’s a race on to see who creates successful fast food and quick-serve versions. Lyfe Kitchen, which opened a location in the Runway at Playa Vista earlier this year, is in the running for the latter. Despite a slick presentation and generally good food, however, there are still some rough edges in their operation.
First impressions count, and this one is well thought out: You enter past a nice patio and a tower of herbs under grow lights to arrive at a counter where a smiling person is waiting to take your order.
The problem is that you probably don’t know what you want, and they don’t make it easy to figure that out. A very, very minimalist menu is posted both along the wall by the place where you order and behind the counter. Although it has symbols to tell you what is vegetarian or gluten-free, it’s very short on details — such as what anything is or what might be on the plate with it.
Given that two spaces are available to display the menu and both are visible from the same spot, it’s rather remarkable that neither provides this information. Specifics are available on the takeout menus that are nearby in case you happen to pick one up, but on two visits nobody mentioned that.
Our first visit was for brunch, and we ordered a breakfast burrito, a mushroom flatbread, and a spinach and avocado frittata. In each case there were surprises, most of them welcome: the burrito came with a spicy salsa, the flatbread with a drizzle of balsamic dressing, the frittata with a side of fried potatoes with chipotle sauce.
We had asked for the flatbread to be served first because we wanted it as an appetizer, but everything came at once. The crust was biscuit-like rather than bready, which I happen to like, and the cheese was nicely toasted, but the kitchen had been a bit heavy-handed with the balsamic dressing. I’d get this again but ask for the dressing on the side.
The breakfast burrito contained egg, cheese and spinach in a whole wheat tortilla. It was OK, but bland without the salsa. The burrito would have been better with some grilled onions and sausage in the mix, and since they serve turkey breakfast sausage here, that could probably be added.
The spinach, avocado and cheese frittata was the most successful item — well-made and appealing to the eye, thanks to a topping of chopped green onions. The side potatoes arrived crisp and drizzled with a good mild chipotle sauce.
We paired our breakfast with a coffee and a latte (free refills on the coffee) and spent a modest $15 each.
There was enough potential that we returned the next day for dinner, ordering a bowl of spicy chicken and kale soup, a mushroom, chicken and spinach penne, and something called Art’s unfried chicken. Wine, beer and house-made soft drinks were offered, and I had a glass of decent organic red while my wife had a refreshing lime cooler.
We took our seats by the tower of herbs and noticed something amusing: the names on the side of the planter had nothing to do with what was growing inside. There were dozens of names but just chives, rosemary and a few other standard herbs, and we hoped no kid tried to pass a botany class based on what they had seen here.
The spicy chicken and kale soup was a daily special described as containing kale and chicken, but there was only a bit of each in the large bowl of zesty chili and tomato broth that arrived. It was not at all what I expected, but it was very good.
The pasta with mushrooms and chicken was exactly what we expected, made with an intense and musky mushroom stock. Whole wheat pasta always has a slightly less-delicate texture than white flour pasta, but they make it well here and it was a good canvas for the other items.
The other item, the “unfried” chicken, was less successful. It was an attempt to replicate fried chicken by taking a thin slice of chicken breast, sprinkling it with breading and running it into an oven. The breading wasn’t crisp and didn’t have enough spice to be interesting, so it didn’t add much to the dish. The Brussels sprouts with squash that arrived with it were excellent, made with dried cranberries and cashew cream sauce, and helped redeem the dinner.
Based on these two meals, Lyfe Kitchen has potential but needs some work — particularly on their communication with customers about the actual content of menu items. The demand for healthy eating is here to stay, and someone is going to make a lot of money catering to that need.
Lyfe Kitchen 12746 W. Jefferson Blvd. Playa Vista (424) 353-9003 lyfekitchen.com