Food in San Fran and Review of LYFE Kitchen Restaurant in Palo Alto, California

February 24, 2013 in Restaurant Review, Review, Sustainability

So I have about 250 posts back-logged – and I might not even get through them in this lifetime … but a few days ago while on a trip to Northern Cali, I went to a pretty cool restaurant and I wanted to blog about it – so here I am. You see, I’m pretty picky about food. Like many of you, I like to eat at sustainable establishments that source ingredients carefully, support local agriculture, accommodate those with food allergies by providing a gluten-free menus, and have tasty, affordable food! This is hard enough to find even if you’re like me and you scope out the area where you live pretty carefully, chill on Yelp searching “organic food” near [insert current location] every time you want to eat out,  read reviews frequently, and are generally aware of what new “eco-friendly” food spots are sprouting up. But chances are, you’re leading a busy life, and while you value good food (and love to eat), you end up going with the flow and eating less-than-ideal food when out and about because you don’t have the time or patience to research every place you go out to eat.

And when you do find a spot that claims it’s sustainable, if you’re anything like me you ask some questions about food sources … aand you risk looking ridiculous as in this video that cracked me up (a clip from the show Portlandia):

Okay, maybe I’m not that ridiculous … but wow, they nailed the customer archetype, hah! Anyway, so while on a short vacation in NorCal, I was reminded of the very real dilemma people face when trying to decide where to go out to eat. Most places don’t use good ingredients and often cook in a way that leaves you feeling uneasy afterwards (uhh can we say cooked in rancid PUFAs and doused with a whole lotta sugar?). Or if it’s a decent place, the wait time is unacceptably long. If they’re good and take reservations, they might not be very accessible or may be prohibitively expensive. In other words, it’s a freakin’ challenge. Le sigh …

Eating Real Food on a Trip

For the first few days, we were getting Chipotle bowls customized to our preferences (no rice, beans or corn for me!) and stopping by local grocery stores to stock up on healthy snacks like nuts and seeds, veggies and fruits, full-fat Greek yogurt, raw cheese, grass-fed hot dogs, kombucha and the like … But soon, we were craving a full meal and a San Fran restaurant experience. After checking out some awesome recommendations from Grass-Fed Girl, we decided on a grass-fed burger joint called Roam Artisan Burgers, where we enjoyed lettuce-wrapped 100% grass-fed burgers in San Fransisco one evening (they have bison and elk burgers too – pretty cool!). And on another occasion we grabbed Middle Eastern food (kebabs and hummus) from Oren’s Hummus in Palo Alto – I preferred the burgers, but the lamb kebabs were quite delish! Most of the time we were eating delicious snacks and groceries from an adorable little open-air grocery store called the Milk Pail Market in Mountain View, California. We also checked out Sprouts, which we liked. Yeah – count on a foodie like me to take grocery store pics on vacay, hah. Check ‘em out:

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[p.s. Cali allows sales of raw milk in stores - which is pretty awesome. Check out my post on raw milk from a while back if you haven't already]

And here are some of the on-the-go snacks we enjoyed: organic apples with creamy almond butter, raw cheddar cheese on tomato slices, and handful(s) of roasted and salted pumpkin seeds. Not bad for on the go, wouldn’t you say?

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Let’s get to the actual meat of the post now shall we …

The Review: LYFE Restaurant in Palo Alto

On our way back from the incredible 17-mile drive, we were Yelping for “organic restaurants” again and came across LYFE Kitchen in Palo Alto, but it was too late to stop by. My brother who recognized the name of the restaurant recalled that he had sent me a Wired article about this very restaurant several months ago – and we both had wanted to try it. The next day on our way back from Napa Valley, we decided to make a stop at LYFE for a bite to eat. I was ravenous because I hadn’t had anything substantial all day, and was ready to devour a healthy meal. I read up on Yelp reviews to know what to expect, and we made the drive.

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First a little background about LYFE Kitchen: LYFE stands for “Love Your Food Everyday” which is a fitting acronym once you hear a bit of the back story of how this restaurant came to be. You see, the founder of this place, Mike Roberts, used to be President and COO of McDonald’s … of all companies … for 29 years. While there, Roberts tried to push for healthier items on the menu like apple dippers, fruit and yogurt parfait and salads. After leaving McDonald’s, Roberts decided to put his money behind a concept that is probably the direct opposite of what McDonald’s is today. According to an interview with Roberts for Wired, he states: “I’m dreaming of a place where science, medicine, producers, farmers, and restaurateurs meet to say we are on a journey together.” That little statement makes my heart sing. Boy am I glad Roberts decided to put his many years of food industry experience to good use. A snippet from the article that turned me onto this place in the first place:

At Lyfe Kitchen  [...] all the cookies shall be dairy-free, all the beef from grass-fed, humanely raised cows. At Lyfe Kitchen there shall be no butter, no cream, no white sugar, no white flour, no high-fructose corn syrup, no GMOs, no trans fats, no additives, and no need for alarm: There will still be plenty of burgers, not to mention manifold kegs of organic beer and carafes of biodynamic wine. None of this would seem surprising if we were talking about one or 10 or even 20 outposts nationwide. But Lyfe’s ambition is to open hundreds of restaurants around the country, in the span of just five years.

Yes, for the moment the only Lyfe Kitchen is here on Hamilton Avenue in Palo Alto. It opened less than a year ago as a sort of prototype. But imagine tens of millions of local, sustainable gourmet meals, served with the efficiency and economy that one expects from a national fast-food chain. Such a feat of feeding has never before been attempted, and if Lyfe Kitchen succeeds, the results will reverberate far beyond our stomachs.

Ok, so maybe I don’t agree with nixing the cream and butter because I love me some high-quality dairy fat. And I might not love the fact that the sweetener of choice at LYFE is agave (sorry guys, agave doesn’t live up to the health hype) – but really, most restaurants cannot make a claim that they follow even these basic guidelines.

The Menu at LYFE Restaurant: What We Tried

The menu at LYFE is simple but there’re a good number of options for those with food allergies or anyone who just wants to avoid certain ingredients like gluten, dairy or meat. I personally seriously dislike the fake meat options on the menu (GMO soy-based “Gardein” chick’n anyone?) but at least the meat options are decent, being hormone-and-antibiotic-free and all. Let me walk you quickly through the items I ordered and give a lil’ bit of my taste analysis …

We ordered off the gluten-free menu because I’ve been avoiding gluten for some time now. It’s broken down into the following sections: breakfast, starters, soups, salads, entrees (and sides), flatbreads, sandwiches + burgers (GF), child’s menu, desserts, and beverages — which include coffee + tea, smoothies, fresh-squeezed juices, coolers, iced teas, handmade sodas, and biodybamic wine and beer. Shyeah … it’s a good amount of stuff!

In an effort to try as many of the categories in one meal as I can … here’s what I ordered:

Gluten-Free Sweet Corn Chowder made with sweet corn, peppers, potatoes, cashew cream [$3.99]

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This soup was more for my dad who unfortunately got really sick on the trip with a fever and a bad cough. I didn’t get to try it but he said it tasted nice and creamy, though he couldn’t specifically point out the cashew part of the equation. The soup came at room temperature, which was a bit disappointing given that he wanted something hot to soothe his throat …

Gluten-Free Fish Tacos grilled mahi, chayote slaw, avocado, green onion, cilantro, chipotle aioli, salsa fresca on warm corn tortillas [$9.99]

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All of us decided to get an order of the grilled mahi mahi tacos because of me. Many on Yelp spoke favorably of the this menu item, so I figured there must be some truth to that claim. And of course, once I choose an order, my parents have to get the same thing. I liked this meal – very light and fresh, with a good amount of shredded veggies atop lightly grilled fish. The mahi mahi was very mild in flavor (perfect for those who don’t like fishy-tasting fish) and easily complemented with the spiced chipotle aioli and slaw on top. The salsa fresca lacked strong flavor, but still went well with the dish. I felt the need to sprinkle a bit of salt on the fish which was a bit bland, but other than that, I’d say it’s a successful entree.

Apple-Ginger handmade soda [$2.99]

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I usually never order juices at restaurants, but the “handmade soda” description had me sold. I asked about the contents and the lady at the register said that the apple-ginger contains apple juice, ginger, and carbonated water. Nice and simple. The soda was tasty but on the overly sweet side, so I’d be careful with that if you’re avoiding sweet stuff.

Baked Sweet Potato Fries with agave ketchup [$2.99]

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Sweet potato fries are my weakness. Well, all potato fries, really. But since all restaurants fry their potatoes in undesirable and unhealthy refined vegetable oils, I’ve cut back drastically on my fry consumption. The fact that these are baked appealed to me, but after ordering I found out that they’re soaked in soy sauce prior to baking … humph. Well, they tasted pretty good, even though bits on the ends of some of them were charred. I dipped a couple of times into the agave ketchup, which was too sweet for me.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Butternut Squash with dried cranberries, dijon vinaigrette [$2.99]

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Unlike the rest of the world, I actually like brussels sprouts, especially when they’re nicely roasted. I really liked this side, which also had a favorite winter squash of mine – butternut – and some cranberries. Not sure about the oil in this vinaigrette, but pretty sure it’s olive. I’d order this again, along with the fish tacos!

Gluten-Free BBQ Chicken free-range grilled chicken, sweet corn, roasted onion, cilantro, agave BBQ sauce, and five cheeses [$8.49]

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One fish taco entree and a third of the sides later, each of us was still not full (keep in mind we hadn’t really eaten all day besides early breakfast and snacks). So we got a serving to share of the BBQ chicken flatbread – also gluten-free. I was actually curious to try the taste of the GF crust because to this day I haven’t had a very successful non-gluteny pizza. This dish was a little underwhelming to be honest – the BBQ sauce was on the sweetish side, and the flatbread was too flat (in taste) and I would say flavorless even with 5 kinds of cheese (probably all fat-free if I had to guess). The chicken is free-range and antibiotic-free, which is great – so I actually wanted to like this. Maybe the other flatbreads are better, but I didn’t get to try any of them …

LYFE Restaurant: Ambiance + Other Observations

From the outside, the restaurant looks modern and inviting, with an outdoor seating area next to their backlit name. They also have a fork for a door handle – how clever!

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Once you’re inside you’re immediately greeted with a beautiful vertical display of organic herbs … Made me think of a gardening project I saw on Pinterest that I can probably never pull off. Whoever designed this had the right idea in mind because it gives the restaurant a vibe of “fresh”, “modern” and uber local (how much more local can you get than on the premises!?)

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The herbs are planted in alphabetical order too … really, now I’m confident this was inspired by Pinterest!

Beyond the lovely display of herbs — the centerpiece of the restaurant — is the register and open food prep area, where customers order their food, take a number and wait for their order to be delivered to their table (a la Noodles & Co. style). This ordering style is casual and informal, but in my opinion doesn’t detract at all from the dining experience. If this enables the restaurant to keep the meals more reasonably priced, then I’m all for it.

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A closer look at the shelves shows some cookbooks on sale between bottles of extra virgin olive oil (hoping they use this for cooking as opposed to canola or soy – yuck). This cookbook here called Back to the Family is by Art Smith, who was Oprah’s chef till 2007 and was recruited by Roberts to design LYFE’s menu a couple of years ago.

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Had to do a close-up of this herb garden – never mind the weird stares I was getting for photographing random stuff.

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Beyond the herb display, there are different kinds of seating in the restaurant, from high tables to booths and wooden tables. LYFE also has free WiFi, which makes it a nice spot to go work or do a lunch meeting in the middle of the day.

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This is me, full and happy (excuse the poor lighting conditions) – sitting in the booth with one of my favorite quotes on the wall behind me: “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food.” Thanks, Hippocrates.

While definitely not perfect, I would probably give this restaurant a 4/5 star review. The cooks clearly have an appreciation for good ingredients, sourced locally whenever possible. The focus on low-fat and the availability of fake meat protein are not things I would endorse by any means, but I feel that especially as compared to most restaurants, this establishment is more conscientious, and I appreciate the attempts that have been made to use clean ingredients at an affordable price. If I lived in Palo Alto, I’d probably be there often, with my laptop and a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice! I think Roberts is planning to open branches all over the country, so I’m looking forward to a branch opening in the DC area … I think it’d do well around here.

On the way out from the restaurant back to the car, I walked through this lit archway and thought it was pretty. Not sure if these are offices or residential … Palo Alto is beautiful though! Note to self: I’d love to live there at some point …

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