Y Ask Y: Lyfe Kitchen Culver City Reviewed
Talk about making a splash: For their flagship location, LYFE Kitchen has opened in a huge space right at the intersection of Washington and Culver Boulevards in Culver City. That’s practically the Times Square of the progressive Southern California food scene—Akasha and Ford’s Filling Station are across the way, and of course there’s a Chipotle two doors down—and it wasn’t an accident. LYFE, which started in Palo Alto last year, is a big idea by big people: two former McDonald’s Corporation executives, hospitality heavyweights, film industry moguls and star athletes make up the bulk of the leadership/investor team. They plan 250 locations within five years’ time.
But this is a food blog, not a business journal.
To look at it from the street, LYFE (that’s Love Your Food Everyday, for you acronym lovers) isn’t too far from a modern corporate cafeteria: clean, comfortable design, a broad menu ranging from breakfast to dinner-style entrees, a small but nicely chosen selection of beer and wine, and the most expensive dish is $14.99.
But it quickly goes beyond that:
• Emphasis locally-sourced and seasonal ingredients
• All items are under 600 calories.
• Recipes were developed by Star Chefs Art Smith (Oprah’s healthy eating guru) and Tal Ronnen (Steve Wynn’s vegan guru). The on-site Executive Chef is even a Charlie Trotter veteran.
• Standard Vegetarian and Gluten-Free menus (and they indicate sodium levels, as well as which dishes include nuts)
• All wines are served ‘on tap,’ making them less expensive and also more eco-friendly.
• Restaurant design used recycled and/or sustainable materials.
• Employees are incentivized and enjoy a long list of positive practices (nicest break room I’ve ever seen in any restaurant).
All of which would be wonderful (and I’m probably overlooking some details) but wouldn’t make a lick of difference if the food wasn’t appealing.
Luckily, it is. Especially for the price.
I got to share in a pre-opening tasting last week---and then went back to try a few more dishes—so at this point I’ve probably had more of the menu than anyone who doesn’t work there. Let me just walk through what I’ve tried:
• Kale-Banana Smoothie: with fresh ginger, cucumber, organic apple and lemon juices. Not quite as amazing as the Kale Shake at Sun Café in Universal City, but that’s 20 miles away or so…and this is a pretty darn good substitute. Ignore the color, it just tastes like a good banana smoothie.
•Lyfe Chia Water: house-filtered water with chia seeds, strawberries, ginger, mint and lime. Sort of refreshing, but I’m not entirely sure I understand the objective of this.
• Chunky Guacamole: comes with big tostada-style spice-dusted chips. About as good as fresh guacamole gets, and I’ve had my share. $5.99 feels a little high though, relative to other pricing here.
• Farmer’s Market salad: Organic (Winter) greens with blackberries, agave-pickled onions, spiced pecans, goat cheese, balsamic vinaigrette. Really fresh tasting and a nice balance of textures and flavors. Definitely worth 1.5x the price of a McDonald’s salad.
• Beets and Farro: Organic field greens, cubed roasted beets, faro, apple, fennel, red onion, walnut, dried cranberries, maple-sherry vinagrette. Speaking as a professional, I am incredibly tired of beet salads. Totally over it. And I couldn’t stop myself going back to this. If there’s an Oscars for salads, this one deserves a nomination. No kidding.
• Sweet Corn Chowder: with diced red peppers, potatoes, chives, cashew cream. 181 Calories? No dairy? Incredible—a velvety, savory, satisfying soup. If they served this to you at Melisse or Patina, you’d compliment it.
• Margherita, BBQ Chicken, Roasted Mushroom & Goat Cheese Flatbreads: on flax seed whole wheat crusts. Nothing wrong with the ingredients, but these really didn’t work for me. They came across as something mom would cook up with tortillas and random fridge contents. The gluten-free crust had a little more to it, but only marginally, and when you realize what a good full-size sourdough-crust pizza you can get a block away at Wildcraft pizza for a couple more dollars, I don’t know why anyone would want these.
• Gardein Sausage and Mozzerella Ravioli: with wilted kale, broccolini, cherry tomatoes, garlic and basil ribbons. Look at those ravioli. 432 calories, and you wouldn’t sniff at that if it was brought to you at any Italian restaurant. [If the pasta was gluten-free/whole grain, I’d be even more impressed]
• Art’s Unfried Chicken: with roasted Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, dried cranberries, cashew cream, Dijon vinaigrette. I would compare this to some of the best Schnitzel I’ve had. But if Marie Calender’s is a more familiar reference to you, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. And if you are, then you deserve the triple-bypass (there, I said it).
• Roasted Loch Duart Salmon: with steamed baby bok choy, shitakes, scallions, jalapeno, ginger miso. Hello, Scottish salmon in a creative Japanese-inspired presentation. I think this one is going to get Art Smith beaten up at the next James Beard Foundation event. It’s that good. If you’re going to charge me twice this much for your salmon, you better have a darn good reason.
• Quinoa Crunch Wrap: fresh veggies, avocado, edamame hummus, forbidden rice, adzuki beans, whole wheat tortilla, hot sauce on the side. This is the kind of thing you want to get for an officemate trying to diet (547 calories isn't Lean Cuisine territory, but it beats a double-double) but complaining about ‘rabbit food.’ Satisfying without making you feel logy afterward, like a regular wrap or burrito. Includes a side of kale-carrot salad.
• Veggie Burger, Classic Burger: Gardein or 100% grass-fed patty on a golden flaxseed bun with organic romaine, tomato, red onion, agave pickles, agave ketchup. This is the other weak link here, at the moment. While the buns and toppings are excellent, the beef patty tastes preformed, rubbery and not very beefy. For 8+ dollars, I’d think they could be hand-forming the patties. The gardein patty is better texture and flavor, but it’s still not significantly greater than a Burger King veggie burger (do they still make them?) BTW, Burger King Europe used to have a spicy bean burger that was Godlike… but I digress.
• Chocolate Budino: with pomegranate-soaked chia seeds, slivered almonds. In Woody Allen’s film Sleeper, one of the biggest jokes concerned chocolate cake being good for you. This rich pot de crème style dessert is amazingly good for you. But who cares? It’s also NOM.
Wines on tap include Au Bon Climat 2009 Pinot Noir and Trefethen 2010 Chardonnay; Draft beers include LA’s own Golden Road brown ale. All of which any experienced Somm would happily recommend anywhere. Adam Corolla will be thrilled to know he can get straight-up normal Black Iced Tea.
They also have a pretty full breakfast menu I haven’t tried, a $5-6 kids menu, and are already set up to do event/meeting catering (there’s a nice sized private dining room available too—very business-savvy).
Is Lyfe Kitchen a destination-worthy restaurant? Well, not necessarily, but I don’t think it’s intended to be. Rather it’s a well-considered alternative to Panera or Tender Greens or (shudder) Sizzler. If you live or work in Culver City, it’s just another great option that will likely make your stomach and wallet equally happy. For the rest of us… we will just have to wait and hope that someone is smart enough to invest in more franchises in Los Feliz, and Santa Monica, and Hollywood, and Studio City, and Calabasas, and Anaheim Hills (and hopefully also Baldwin Hills and Whittier Blvd). I feel confident that they will get there—the question is, how fast?
Oh, P.S. That’s me with Lyfe Ambassador, Olympic Gold Medalist Janet Evans, and a friend of hers you also might know, Greg Louganis.