The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2017 Fall Dining Guide.
True Food Kitchen
Never mind the mission statement and the promise of an “anti-inflammatory” menu that precede a meal at this Bethesda branch of an Arizona-based chain. The food, from the herby hummus circling a bright Greek salad to a pudding starring chia, bananas and shaved coconut, is for the most part fresh and fun. The chef, Randall Matthews, brings serious chops, having previously worked at Bourbon Steak in Georgetown. Count on his fish tacos, grain bowls and pizza (made with flaxseed) to taste as good as they look. A haven for vegetarians and the gluten-intolerant, the block-long dining room, aglow in green and yellow, is hell on your ears. Solace is the front patio, at least in good weather.
True Food Kitchen: 7100 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda. 240-200-1257. truefoodkitchen.com/bethesda.
Prices: Mains $12-$26.
Sound check: 79 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
The following review was originally published August 2, 2017.
True Food Kitchen is health-bent on pleasure
The first words out of the server’s mouth sound a familiar alarm. In my experience, “Let me tell you about our menu” typically precedes an overly long, obvious-to-anyone-who-reads breakdown of appetizers and entrees that turns diners into hostages.
This being True Food Kitchen, which made its debut in Bethesda in June, the server is obliged to share the chain restaurant’s commitment to healthful eating. Part of me wants to bolt when she tells me the menu in my hands was designed with the help of a certain Dr. Andrew Weil, responsible for developing an anti-inflammatory diet. Hey, I’m all for good fresh food, less so when it’s delivered with a lecture. As the waiter rattles on, I see a ray of hope near the juice bar: actual cocktails being made. Okay, I’m good! Bring on the ancient grains and sustainable sea bass. Even if mindfulness ends up trumping flavor, I figure a stiff drink can get me through the meal.
Then the food arrives, and I find myself eating my thought clouds — and paying scant attention to my gin gimlet. Shiitake lettuce cups look to Asia with a bowl of diced tofu, cashews, jicama and sambal (chile paste), served with spears of romaine onto which diners spoon the warm mushroom salad. “Herb” hummus is just that, cilantro and parsley mashed into raw chickpeas and pureed until everything is smooth and thick, then served in a ring around a showy Greek salad. The pulsing heat in the dip, offered with slices of pita, comes courtesy of jalapeños; the zingy tomatoes, olives and red onions feel like a bonus. Guacamole reimagined with kale is a pleasant surprise, though the grapefruit in the dip, eaten with pita crisps, is a curious inclusion that ought to be shown the door.
Bethesda is one of 20 True Food Kitchens in the country (the Mosaic District in Fairfax got a branch three years ago), and it’s a formula that merits replicating. Good ingredients allowed to shine with a little coaching from a mindful chef — and dishes served in a lively atmosphere by young evangelists — are a potent combination, as the crowds who have descended on this venue can attest. No matter the day or the time, the block-long restaurant, whose green-and-yellow palette evokes spring and summer, sees rush-hour traffic. Of course, it’s loud. But you can hardly expect 800 people, the weekday average, to sound as if they’re in a museum.
Besides, the grilled fish tacos and grain bowls are dishes to crow about. The latter starts with a base of steamed quinoa, farro and brown rice, topped with soft chunks of sweet potato, fleshy portobellos, charred onion and buttery avocado. Meat can be added for extra; wok-warmed, grass-fed steak makes a nice $5 upgrade.
The Arizona-based company recruited Randall Matthews, a corporate chef with the San Francisco-based (Michael) Mina Group, to return to near where he grew up, Prince George’s County, Md. Has it been hard for Matthews, whose stints have included Bourbon Steak in Georgetown, to ease up on butter and beef? The young diplomat, 29, who says he appreciates both realms, has a mantra wherever he cooks: “Never sacrifice deliciousness.”
The chef pretty much walks the talk at True Food Kitchen. For every “torched” avocado tossed with cucumber noodles and moistened with turmeric ponzu — an interesting idea that tastes more like a test than a finished thought — there are two dishes that show the kitchen keeps up with the fashions and wants you to come back for more. Ruffled dumplings stuffed with pureed edamame and just a suggestion of butter and truffle oil are set afloat in a clear dashi broth speckled with sesame seeds. Pizza is made healthier with nutty-flavored flaxseed in its crust, which the chef says leads to its crisp texture. A web of Taleggio cheese, mushrooms and blanched asparagus makes for a respectable topping on a pizza with satisfying chew.
If you wish, you can drink in tune with the food. Kale Aid is green with the obvious, plus celery and cucumber, sweet with apple and hot with ginger. Poured over ice, it refreshes better than any commercial soda. For Medicine Man, the bartender blends black tea with blueberry, pomegranate and trendy sea buckthorn for a more complex quaff.
While calling to vegans, vegetarians and the gluten-intolerant with much of its list, True Food Kitchen casts a wider net with its main courses, many of which would look right at home at a more mainstream restaurant. Lasagna Bolognese shows up as a robust slab of pasta layered with lemon ricotta and organic ground chicken and capped off with fresh basil and a dusting of cheese. Similarly, crisp pan-roasted chicken is arranged with a corn and chickpea salad, tangy with feta cheese and brassy with Fresno chile, that could star on its own.
Key lime pie smells familiar — like the air freshener in my last Lyft. The dessert’s texture, akin to Jell-O stiffened with starch, does not endear itself to diners either. Count me a fan, though, of the pudding made with chia and bananas and decked out with shaved coconut. Tiny black seeds from a member of the plant family that produces mint, chia are packed with fiber, protein and omega-3 fatty acids. All I know is my spoon is scraping bottom.
True Food Kitchen found, in one of the most competitive restaurant markets, an army of servers who seem to be sold on their mission. Staff T-shirts emblazoned with “Honest” and “Shine On” are subliminal messages that are easy for everyone to get behind. Aside from the opening speech, which you might skip if you’ve heard it before, the health-bent mission statement isn’t repeated. The food quietly takes care of that.
If it starts out preachy, True Food Kitchen has the power to make believers out of skeptics. Praise the pizza and pass the pudding.