2400 Historic Decatur Road, Point Loma
"Why did you choose this restaurant?" asked my friend Mark en route to Tender Greens. A fair question, to be sure, since I'm scarcely one of those Hollywood/Park Avenue size-two types who lunch on a single lettuce leaf and dine on a carrot stick. Initially, I wasn't all that keen to try a menu so virtuous that it's dominated by salads, even if the salads are made of local organic produce. In fact, based on its remarkably modest prices (everything is $10 or less), I meant to talk Ed-Bed into reviewing it as a Tin Fork place. Let Ed eat rabbit food!
But lately, people are looking for cheaper good restaurants, and my Boss of All Bosses has strongly hinted to me that he'd like me to join that search. I've actually been reading some of the financial news, however boring and scary it all is, and now I want to share with you my own profound analytical insights into how we have come to this dreadful pass that makes me eat rabbit food: In classical capitalism, financial institutions would lend money to presumably worthy new enterprises needing fresh dough to produce something real and presumably valuable. Lately, the richly paid execs at those same august institutions have switched to borrowing ginormous sums of money from each other and China to gamble wildly on the Tooth Fairy. Voilà! Suddenly everybody's hurting and hunting for cheap eats.
I gave Mark the more immediate answer to his question: "I got a completely unexpected email," I said, "from Hans-Trevor Gossman, who used to be the chef at the Brasserie downtown, before it was downgraded into Lou & Mickey's. Now he's working for Hamilton Meats, and he's become the meat maven to the stars — a lot of top local chefs have been raving about him. And out of the blue, he wrote me to recommend Tender Greens. When I get culinary advice from a source like that, I have to follow it."
Tender Greens is the second location of a new, deeply green mini-chain that began in Culver City and is about to expand to West Hollywood. Not only is most of the food literally green, but the restaurants use solar power and ecologically benign cleansers, the napkins are soft, brown recycled paper, the plastic-looking doggie-boxes are compostable, and the staffers' uniforms consist of organic cotton T-shirts. The co-owners of our local branch are a pair of former Point Loma High School buddies, Pete Balistreri and Ryan Brandenburg, who invested nearly $1 million to create the restaurant. The food sources here feature vegetables from Crow's Pass Farm in Temecula and bread from Con Pane Rustic Bakery in Point Loma. The menu, however, is the same at all locations, devised by the executive chef–owners of the Culver City original, Matt Lyman and Erik Oberholzer. Daily specials and desserts (by Brandenburg's mom) are the only food creations specific to our branch.
Located in the charming sandy-pink enclave of Liberty Station (where Mark did boot camp, but which is now rapidly becoming a culinary center), the restaurant is a spacious high-ceilinged room with hardwood and tile floors, bare wooden tables made of wood recycled from a demolished barn, with wooden chairs, softer banquets, and huge cylindrical lamp shades. There's a pleasant heated patio in back if you'd rather escape the inevitable noise borne of such hard-edged decor.
You place your order at a booth a few feet from the entrance. Then you proceed past a long, glass-walled kitchen, working up an appetite at the sight of all the beautiful food, until you reach an open counter at the end, where as your order is assembled on cafeteria trays, you can add a beverage. Pay up, schlep your tray to the table of your choice. Staffers roam around to check, "Is everything all right?," furnish more water or napkins, and bring doggie boxes when you're done. If you have a lot to go, ask for a bag, and you'll receive a capacious shopping tote made partly of recycled plastic, partly of biodegradable corn-based "plastic." (Now, there's a better use for corn than high-fructose corn syrup!)
We began with all three available soups, served in deep, wide cups. (If only you could add a piece of bread à la carte, any of these would make a fulfilling simple supper.) The "rustic chicken soup" is a work of art — yes, it really is better than Mom's, even if your mother is Jewish or Chinese. It's a greaseless, deeply chicken-flavored broth loaded with carrots, noodles, and plentiful chunks of tender fowl, which are faintly smoky from the mesquite-fueled grill. I didn't even miss the matzo balls (or the wontons). Roasted Roma tomato bread soup with basil oil was less satisfying. The thick purée was not just tangy but sour. The day's special soup, butternut squash, was rich, sweet, autumnal, hinting of the holidays to come.
Hans-Trevor had singled out the tuna Niçoise salad for praise. It wasn't the classic "composed salad" that any of us expected. It had all the standard elements of the dish, but they were awash in a sea of excellent but excessive "tender greenery" that, frankly, I'd like less of. Almost masked by all the foliage were slim green beans, halved cherry tomatoes, fingerling potatoes, and tiny halved hard-boiled eggs, probably quail. The tuna was a slab of tender line-caught local albacore, cooked very rare to our order. It was the Lynnester who confessed first: "You know, I really like Niçoise better with canned tuna." "Me, too," I admitted, "with really good canned tuna from Italy or Spain." "Packed in olive oil," said Inta, enthusiastically making a trio in the confessional.
"Oh, something else," I added. "I always drape a few anchovies over the tuna, and I miss them. The menu says there are supposed to be capers and oil-cured black olives. They'd have the big bold flavor hits that I'm missing, but I haven't run into a one of them." Indeed, they were all on the lam, hiding under the lettuces at the bottom of the bowl, undiscovered until I ravaged the doggie box two days later. By that time, the tuna had absorbed the sherry vinaigrette dressing and become much more complex and savory than when eaten fresh. It had changed from merely healthy to delectable — different from but equal to oily-yummy Ventresca belly-tuna from a can. The restaurant could speed the process along by providing a quarter of a lemon to squeeze on — or better yet, by marinating the fish in the dressing.