True Food Kitchen does a good job with fish dishes. Even a carefree gourmand could visit this diet-conscious establishment, order the moist, pink grilled steelhead salmon and be pleased with the experience. It's paired with perfect companions: red quinoa laced with caramelized onion and crisp, fresh mizuna salad strewn throughout with cubes of beets in the deepest burgundy.
The salmon is not the only great fish dish on the menu. The miso cod filet is also good, even if the same could not be said of the unseasoned bok choy that accompanied it or the weak attempt at dashi. The cod was mild, deeply seared on top and included enough brackish miso paste to give it just the right amount of seasoning.
True Food Kitchen did not commit the culinary crime of cooking either fish to dryness. Both were still blissfully tender and moist.
Instead, other offenses are committed here. Some of the dishes served are so, so bland or wrongheaded that diners will struggle to find their redeeming qualities. The individual ingredients are of good quality, but the overall combinations sometimes result in poor mockeries of the classics.
True Food Kitchen opened last July in the BLVD Place development off Post Oak and San Felipe. It serves food that adheres to the restrictions of Dr. Andrew Weil's "anti--inflammatory" diet.
Here's what this review is not going to do: determine whether those recommendations are "healthy" in the medical sense. Nor will this get into comparisons between Weil's recommendations and those of other gurus or organizations. ("Dammit, Jim, I'm a food writer, not a doctor.")
What this review will do is treat True Food Kitchen just like any other restaurant and assess the food. The upshot is that while some dishes fail mightily, others are memorable and appealing. Another attractive draw for diners is the surprisingly sophisticated wine and cocktail program.
The restaurant is an open-concept space, with knotty, ashen wood paneling; a high ceiling adorned with the same wood; and enormous round light fixtures in the ceiling that look as if they were made of flat, woven, deep-brown reeds. Even though the big room is basically a huge rectangle, it's still very easy to have a conversation. There's a large bar area near the front door. Drinking in moderation is healthy, right?
True Food Kitchen certainly doesn't lack for business, most likely thanks to Weil's fame. It's bustling, but it also has plenty of seating capacity. Parties of two had no problem getting seated immediately. (Reservations are accepted for parties of eight or more.)
Service runs from strange and pushy to pleasant and accommodating. One server rattled off at least eight different recommendations from the menu. That's too many for diners to recall when it comes time to order. It's dinner, not a memory test.
Worse than that, there was no reason given as to why the dishes were recommended. Not one question was asked about preferences, dining history or dietary restrictions.
The first item in the rapid-fire list of suggestions was edamame dumplings. Some time was needed to ponder the menu, so the server went away for a bit. When she returned, the same item came up again. "Can I get you an appetizer, like some edamame dumplings?" she said quite pointedly. Was it time to play ball and see what this was all about? Yes. Yes it was.
The dumplings were not good at all. Imagine envelopes of green paste flavored with an overwhelming amount of truffle oil. The consistency might make guests smack their lips together a few times but not with delight. After the visits, we called and asked why these were suggested more than once by our server. The manager we spoke to said it's entirely up to the servers to make their own recommendations. This just wasn't a good one.
If the dumplings were a disappointment, the panang curry was the embodiment of despair. If it had been presented in a blind taste test in a grocery store, it could easily have passed as a previously frozen, boil-in-bag preparation. The curry had heat, and that was the lone identifying characteristic.
Typical panang curry ingredients, such as galangal, coriander and lemongrass, contribute depth. In this case, that depth was entirely absent. There was nothing but shallow heat. The brown rice was incorporated into the sauce, so the grains broke down to the point of indistinctiveness. A few tiny broccoli florets, lost in a sea of pale yellow-orange, seemed to punctuate how far adrift the dish was from any semblance of authenticity.
Fortunately, the server on our second visit skipped the recital part of the performance and everything went much better, with both the service and the food.
There was one misstep, but the resulting dish was good anyway. The caramelized onion tart sounded like it would be -- well, a tart. The ingredients included rounds of dried black fig, some pleasantly sticky smoked garlic and a bit of Gorgonzola. However, it turned out that instead of arriving in some kind of small pastry shell, the ingredients had been laid across lavash and toasted a bit. Except for the technical flaw that the rounds of dried fig tended to fall off, the tart was quite a good combination.
The problem was that since the name was not clear, the butternut squash pizza had been ordered for the same meal. As a result, two new dishes that were both essentially pizzas arrived during the same meal at the same time. That being said, the butternut squash pizza was another treasured standout.
Beyond beautifully and deeply caramelized slices of butternut squash and sweet onion, there were little chunks of toasted walnut to provide buttery texture. There was also a light scat-tering of arugula across the top, but this dish stopped far short of being one of those salad pizzas that were all the rage a few years ago.
True Food Kitchen must believe that even dessert is healthy, in moderation. The pear date cake was quite lovely. The poofy dark cake, with a layer of caramelized pears on top, was only slightly sweet. The real winner, though, was the remarkable squash pie, encased in a thick graham crust. It was full of the notes of cinnamon and allspice one might expect, and a coconut whipped-cream topping proved to be a crowning touch that treaded new ground. Move over, pumpkin; there's a new kid on the block.
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Parking is quite easy. There's a free garage in the parking lot, and there is also a complimentary valet in front, should you be in a hurry or not wish to park your own car. Of course, tips are expected and appreciated.
The overall tab at True Food Kitchen will not cause sticker shock. Even with a cocktail or glass of wine, the price will likely be in the neighborhood of $45 per person after tax and gratuity.
If you stay with the fish dishes, pizzas and beverages, you're sure to walk out wondering how you never knew before that diet food could taste so good. Stray off the path at your own risk.
Edamame dumplings $9 Caramelized onion tart $10 Butternut squash pizza $12 Panang curry with tofu $14 Miso glazed black cod $25 Grilled steelhead salmon $24 Spontaneous Happiness $9 The Peacemaker $11