A&E

Healthy and hip

Not just for health nuts, True Food Kitchen delivers creative, varied cuisine

I was planning a dinner party recently and faced an all-too-common modern dilemma: I had to put together a menu for two vegetarians, a vegan, someone who was lactose-intolerant and another who was trying a paleo diet. I managed to cobble together a repast to satisfy all proclivities, but next time I'm going an easier route: I'm taking us all out to True Food Kitchen.

True Food, which opened last October in the Stanford Shopping Center, is a growing national chain that purports to cater to every food preference. The menu is based on an anti-inflammatory diet designed by Andrew Weil, a physician who espouses holistic health and integrative medicine. According to assistant manager Johnny Lugo, all dishes are made from scratch, starting with a vegan base and expanding from there, with options to accommodate all sorts of food allergies or personal quirks. All menu items are clearly marked as vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free and whether ingredients are served raw or undercooked. Salads and bowls, for example, stand alone just fine or, for an extra fee, can incorporate grass-fed beef, salmon, tuna, chicken or shrimp.

But don't let the "healthy" aspect make you think of bland brown rice concoctions or tried-and-true stir-fried vegetables. The menu is creative, varied and diverse, and I did not have one dish that let me down in terms of either taste or presentation.

Starters include kale guacamole ($10) a surprisingly piquant blend of puréed kale, avocado, grapefruit, cilantro and poblano peppers, sprinkled with sunflower seeds and served with a side of crispy pita chips. One of the most popular appetizers is the edamame dumplings ($12), silky-smooth wontons stuffed with blended edamame basking in a truffle-infused broth and garnished with Thai basil. My favorite remains the charred cauliflower ($8), roasted to bring out its nutty essence, coupled with Middle East-inspired flavors from tahini, dates, mint and pistachios.

More substantial selections range from terrific fish tacos ($19), loaded with beans, soft cheese, cilantro and yogurt in a way that allows all the flavors to remain strong yet balanced, and lasagna Bolognese ($18) with house-made chicken sausage and lemon-spiked ricotta. The lasagna, though tasty, was disappointing in that the dish was less refined in flavor and served barely warm. The Brussels sprouts and wild mushroom pizza ($15), on the other hand, was addictive, with large chunks of meaty mushrooms and gooey cheese on grainy, thin-crust dough. And don't skip the ancient grains bowl ($16), a gorgeous and well-balanced composition of quinoa, farro and brown rice topped with sweet potatoes, portobellos, avocado and crispy onions.

True Food also breaks the organic/vegetarian stereotype with a full bar that serves creative (and delectable) cocktails alongside a well-thought-out selection of beer and wine, plus some trademark concoctions. "Kale Aid" ($7) is a glass of bright green, freshly pressed veggies infused with a jolt of ginger. Matcha horchata ($5) jazzes up the traditional Mexican almond milk beverage with zingy spices.

With its tall ceilings, wide-plank wood floors, huge overhead lighting fixtures and lime-green accents, True Food has a sleek, modern look that counters its holistic approach to food. The space is massive, with seating for more than 250, and an open kitchen that showcases an ongoing onslaught of carefully choreographed preparations. Additional seating is offered at the bar, along with nearby family-style high-top tables that you share.

A word about reservations: Make one, if at all possible. True Food is immensely popular and waits can be long especially in the evening -- and the noise level is high, especially from the sheer number of people milling by the door. Once you are seated, however, you can relax. Service is consistently exceptional, with young upbeat servers in tight T-shirts reading "True," "Honest" and "Fresh," who are simply oozing with personality and charm -- in a good way.

According to Lugo, the menu will change in April to incorporate more seasonal produce, and plans are under way for an expanded catering enterprise and possibly a happy hour. In the meantime, True Food Kitchen is using fresh, high-quality ingredients in dishes with robust, satisfying flavors that take "healthy" to a whole new level.

True Food Kitchen

Stanford Shopping Center, 180 El Camino Real, #1140, Palo Alto

650-272-5157

truefoodkitchen.com

Hours: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Credit cards: Yes

Reservations: Yes

Catering: Yes

Delivery: No

Outdoor seating: No

Parking: Adjacent lot

Alcohol: Full bar

Happy Hour: No

Wheelchair access: Yes

Noise level: High

Bathroom cleanliness: Excellent

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