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Monday, December 19, 2011

A LYFE Kitchen dinner with celebrity Chef Tal Ronnen

You know how sometimes kids get to go to a toy store and choose a whole pile of gifts all for themselves? Well, that kind of happened to my friend Carl Mindling and I last week, not at Toys R' Us, at LYFE Kitchen restaurant in Palo Alto, CA. I felt like pinching myself to see if I was dreaming.

I'd received an invitation to a "media" food tasting and gladly accepted. I marked my calendar then patiently waited for the big day to arrive. On the day-of it occurred to me that perhaps I should have mentioned I'm vegetarian. What if all of the dishes we were going to sample were meat based? I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

Each dish is highlighted below.

My fears were wasted energy because as it turned out not only would we be dining on all vegan dishes, one of our dining companions would be none other than Chef Tal Ronnen, one of the two Executive Chef's at LYFE Kitchen!

Chef Tal told us that we were about to enjoy a meal that would be delicious, satisfying and coincidentally, cholesterol free. That's right, zero cholesterol. Every dish would be under 600 calories and each would be packed with flavor.

Part of the reason he became involved with LYFE Kitchen was because he "wants to change the perception (people have) about plant based foods." Through LYFE Kitchen he's been able to reach a much more diverse audience than if he'd chosen to work for a brand that is 100% vegan or vegetarian.

I'd had the pleasure of meeting him on a couple other occasions. He is great. Seriously. He's low key and very nice and fun to talk to because not only does he know a lot about food, he's always willing to share what he knows. He's perhaps best known as the vegan guru who guided Oprah and her staff through their 21 Day vegan cleanse diet.

Chef Tal is happy to talk about veganism and how to make vegan food.

His approach to promoting veganism is very similar to that of author Jonathan Safran Foer's which is "quiet in an incremental way." This means he doesn't judge, he doesn't try to convince you you're wrong if you mention you eat meat or dairy products nor does he overtly try to convince you that you should even be vegan. I love his style because I don't think attacking, intimidating or guilting people are the most effective ways to help guide them toward a new way of thinking, or in this case eating :)

As we took our seats we were asked "What have you not tried on the Vegan Menu?" I mentioned the Cesar Salad, and Marla and Carissa who'd helped organize the tasting asked if I'd had a Smoothie or the BBQ Pizza. I replied "no" and just like that the order was sent to the kitchen!

Very Berry Smoothie

I'd had a LYFE Kitchen Cooler and a Mocha before but never a Smoothie. Hands down the Smoothies are my favorite drink so far. I had the Very Berry on the right and Carl had the strawberry just behind it.. The Very Berry contains strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, acai, agave nectar, fruit juices and ice.

We began with a dairy free Sweet Corn Chowder. I'd had it once before so I didn't sample it that night. Cashews and water are processed in a Vitamix blender to create the cream base for the chowder. It was amazing to watch the two ingredients be transformed into a new ingredient when I attended a cooking demo earlier this year.

The BBQ Chicken Flatbread.

This is now one of my new favorite menu items. For meat eaters there's the option of free-range grilled chicken and for vegetarians and vegans the Gardein Chicken, sweet corn, roasted onion, cilantro, agave bbq sauce, and a non dairy five-cheese blend.

You cannot imagine how sweet, savory and packed with flavor their house made BBQ sauce is. And the wholegrain crust was thin, crunchy and added more flavor than a traditional white flour crust could. The chopped Gardein chicken was so meat like I seriously think that people could eat this pizza and never realize they didn't just eat real chicken. And the cheese is not soy, it's tapioca based! But it kind of looks, melts and has a cheesy stretchability factor similar to milk based cheese. I can't wait to order this again!

Ancient Grains Bowl

This is Chef Tal's signature dish on the LYFE Kitchen dinner menu. His Ancient Grains Bowl is stir-fried Gardein tips and sauteed vegetables over whole-grain farro and quinoa with a sweet and spicy chile-ginger sauce. It's as delicious as it is colorful! The Gardein tips are a faux beef that is soft and tender not like ground beef, but bite sized cubes of filet mignon.

Art’s Unfried Chicken or Gardein Chicken

And this is Chef Art Smith's unfried chicken, or in this case, Gardein Chicken cutlet served with roasted winter squash, brussels sprouts, dried cranberries, cashew cream, and a dijon vinaigrette. The Brussels sprouts are always perfect. My biggest complaint about Brussels sprouts is that at most other restaurants they tend to be undercooked. I think this was the fifth time I've had them at LYFE Kitchen and they've been perfect every time.

The Cesar Salad

Here's a another new dish I'd been looking forward to trying. Usually Cesar Salad isn't vegetarian because of the anchovies or vegan because of the egg in the dressing. At LYFE Kitchen a combination of capers and miso replace the anchovies creating a dressing that is similar to a traditional cesar but doesn't use any animal products. The salad consists of organic romaine, cherry tomatoes, english cucumbers, shaved parmesan, eggless caesar dressing and multigrain croutons. All I could say as I gobbled it down was WOW. Again, I couldn't believe how flavorful it was and it made me wonder: Why aren't more restaurants doing this?

The Tofu Tacos are a new menu item. I suspect they are the same as the standard two tacos with grilled mahi (fish), chayote slaw, avocado, chipotle aioli, cilantro, and chipotle vinaigrette on warm corn tortillas. But instead of mahi I suspect they use their agave lime grilled tofu. It is the only dish that I could tell I wasn't eating meat but that might be because *and I cringe to say this* I don't really like tofu.

Did I mention I'm kind of a lame vegetarian? The three foods I don't like: Tofu, mushrooms and eggplant are the most common meat substitutions on most restaurant menus and I don't like any of them. I'd rather eat a bowl of Brussels sprouts, a pile of Kale, or beans in any shape or form. I've often joked I should get hypnotized into liking them because if they can teach people not to smoke they can certainly teach a girl how to love portebello mushrooms. It would make eating out even easier if I could learn to love the vegetarian triad of tofu/mushrooms/eggplant.

The Baked Sweet Potato Fries with agave house made ketchup. I'd had them before, twice to be exact. They're always a crowd pleaser. They are a softer fry, not super crisp but very tasty and more nutrient dense than russet potato fries.

Another favorite of mine is the crispy gardein* chicken sandwich with chayote slaw, fresh tomatoes, agave pickles, and garlic aioli on a flat, multigrain bread. The combination of flavors burst in your mouth and the textures are great with the soft bread, crunchy Gardein chicken cutlet, and the crisp veggies combining to create one very satisfying sandwich.

There are certain things LYFE Kitchen doesn't use on their menu, like deep fryers or refined sugar. Their pickles are sweetened with agave nectar. You would never know. They taste just like classic pickles.

I hadn't tried the Grilled Vegetable Sandwich mostly because it contains grilled portobello mushroom, eggplant, and red onion, with fresh english cucumber, tomato, and edamame hummus on multigrain bread. Someday I will order without the mushroom and eggplant because I think a cucumber, onion, tomato, and edamame hummus sandwich sounds grand!

The Banana Rum Cheesecake is a non-dairy cheesecake nestled in a pecan crust and topped with a rum sauce. We had this on the grand opening night and I was shocked at how rich and creamy it was with no dairy in it!

And the vegan Chocolate Chip Cookie was soft and chewy with rich chips of dark chocolate. I guess the term "milk" chocolate led me to the assumption that all chocolate contains milk. Chef Tal said the best chocolates usually don't contain any dairy products like milk or milk powder. Cool, it's nice to know certain brands of fine chocolate are vegan friendly.

Now here's where I got a little stupid. I photographed all of the food, the beverages, the desserts and even the empty table when we all stood up.

Can you believe after spending the evening dining and chatting with him it never occurred to me to ask to take a picture of Chef Tal, or to ask to take a picture with him. Doh! Next time. *Shaking my head here.*

Gift Cards

Looking for a great holiday gift? LYFE KItchen has gift cards available. My hubby gave me one two months ago. I used it to buy lunch and got a super cool water bottle.

Here's how their December through January 31, 2012 promotion works: Buy a $50 gift card at LYFE Kitchen and you'll receive an extra $10 gift card along with it.

Or, buy a $25 gift card and you'll receive an additional $5 gift card.

With the extra cards, you can regift them or use them for yourself. That's what I would do. I would use them for myself. LOL

A HUGE THANK YOU to Chef Tal Ronnen, Marla, Carissa, Restaurant Manager Steve and his staff at LYFE Kitchen for such a delicious and satisfying experience. I'm already planning my next trip back for more pizza!

If you haven't been to LYFE Kitchen yet here's the 411:

167 N. Hamilton, Palo Alto, CA
650-325-LYFE (5933)

Open 7 days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

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