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My first impression of Palo Alto reminds me of the movie set for The Truman Show, where the protagonist, played by Jim Carey, lived: lush green spaces, the sky is almost always blue, beautiful babies eat sushi and tapas, table talk is of incubators..the business variety, and everything is multicultural fusion.. Future world. The cars are smallish..but there are plenty of Teslas and BMW's and hybrids.
It is quite lovely. I found myself in the middle of Silicon Valley last month where so many familiar brand names dot the landscape: Athleta, Patagonia, Google, Facebook, Apple, all the fast forward digital companies and the hottest retail concepts housed in high tech storefronts and offices everywhere you look. There are bike paths, parking is free, and old movie theaters show Casablanca every day.
But perhaps the most intriguing aspect for the foodie in me in this precious piece of geography are the restaurants and especially the new healthy fast food concepts. Palo Alto IS the incubator for many of them. After all, those venture capitalists like to see a physical prototype of their investments and the town itself is situated in the fresh food basket of the US. Against the background sounds of whirling blenders and steaming woks and customers with their laptops open, techies discuss their startups, market caps and native digital concepts.
For someone like me, and I assume Stanford students, Millennials, college professors, and yoga instructors, having healthy choices are a special delight when I have to spend a whole week dining out. Don't get me wrong, I love the not so healthy choices too. (Check out Scoop Microcreamery, the micro creamery that serves the best salted caramel bourbon ice-cream ever). But within a block of my hotel there are at least five cafes offering as one restaurant claims "taste you trust,” that is, organic, gluten free, vegan, fresh, whole grain, cruelty free and sustainable. A literal mouthful. These are menus and offerings that are politically correct and shaped by the latest scientific health directives..and fads. But the essential element that I think makes this appealing, is that the customer has a lot of latitude to customize their meal, to mix and match to suit their dietary preferences, and they trust the source of the ingredients.
Pick a "base" such as mixed fresh greens or quinoa and add a "protein" (salmon, chicken or grass fed beef) and all kinds of trendy veggies like beets, kale and some whole grains, and top with your choice of sauce or dressings. The staff will mix it right in front of you to order at Sweetgreen before you take your place at a communal table or bench. Of course, you can download their app to have it all ready for your arrival or takeout. Staff are outgoing, fresh scrubbed and quick. Happy staff makes happy food.
Lyfe Kitchen was another concept complete with a Michael Pollan quote at the door and fresh herbs growing floor to ceiling as a centerpiece. There I could get a great breakfast, an egg sandwhich with griddled whole grain bread or a Quinoa Lemon Blueberry Pancake while I watched cartons of freshly made smoothies going out to delivery to local business meetings.
And if you get the chance, check out Spice Kit, a riff on Asian street food. Finally, try Bare Bowls…a super smoothie stop that will test you knowledge of nutritional trends with items like ashwaganda, Mct oil and collagen.
As I write this, I am aware that I am a little conflicted about all of this. Sure, I love having good healthy choices and think the world would benefit from a lot more of that. So what is it?
Well, several things. First, most humans on the planet don't even have close to this much food or this many choices for food. So there is the guilt factor. I am lucky to know what is good and have the means to buy and eat it. I wish everyone did.
Secondly, like our words and music, our modern food often seems to be offered now as components instead of through artful words that entice, whet our appetite and expand our sense of nourishment. Instead, at these sorts of restaurants, menu items usually are presented in color coded or otherwise categorized building blocks.
Sure it makes it easy to control your menu, enhances your opportunity for health, and works for you personally. But I am a bit of an old- fashioned girl. Instead of “protein”, I want the rosemary scented grilled chicken or the marinated middle eastern lamb stew or instead of the cruciferous medley, I want broccoli rabe sautéed with garlic and lemon or Brussels sprouts braised with bacon. I know, I know. Aren't I the picky one? But I do have a point. Let's not digitize our food into mere building blocks that we consume to reach a certain goal of nutritional equanimity, if not perfection. Let's not forget the intangibles of dining, the long simmered bolognese sauce, the surprise of a lemon zest garnish, or a drizzle of basil oil or the grating of fresh parmesan, the skilled hand and taste of a chef who can make that umami flavor from scratch, from instinct and with magic and not pouring it from a bottle. And of course there is the quiet, slow conversation that makes everything taste better.
Another issue is that even if the individual ingredients taste good, many of the consumers don't really know how to cook and mix together the flavors and textures to make a satisfying whole. I am reminded of the first trip I made to Paris in my early twenties. I had made a couple of soufflés from my trusty Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child. But until I sat at a sidewalk cafe and actually ordered one created by a French chef, I never knew what it should really taste like, what I could be reaching for each time I tried the recipe.
So go ahead and try these happy healthy energetic emporiums full of food building blocks. I hope you get the chance. But remember that a meal's satisfaction comes not just from a mix of ingredients. Just as a memorable musical piece is more than the digital sounds that are strung together, it takes some art and love and skill to make the diner close her eyes, say "Mmmm" and scrape the last drop of sauce from the dish.