Should you go to a health-food restaurant just because the food is good for you? No, you should go there because the cooking is healthy and tastes great.
Now, a related question: If you call your place “Kale” and add chopped bits of it to nearly every dish on the menu, will they come?
To many New Yorkers, a restaurant called “Kale” brings to mind a punch line involving Brooklyn. But the kale craze goes way beyond Brooklyn: there are more than two dozen books with “kale” in the title, from “Fifty Shades of Kale” (really) to “Wake Up and Eat the Kale.” On the other hand, how many vegetables have their own tribute page on WebMD.com?
So back to Kale, the new fast-food restaurant in Murray Hill. The place is still in business more than seven months after opening, so someone must be hearing the call. In truth, Kale is really not too bad, given that it’s, you know, all about kale and there is at least some kale in most things on the menu, including a daily kale-containing soup and several of the breakfast sandwiches. Mercifully, the fruit-topped oatmeal is kale-free.
For lunch or dinner, Kale is one of those build your own meal places that seek to dazzle you with their vast array of menu items laid out along the counter, each in its own stainless steel tub. It works like this: You choose a “base” from column A, then a “protein” from column B and finally two vegetable dishes to put on the side. A large platter is $10.99 and a small is $7.99.
There are four proteins to choose from.The “jerk-style chicken,” made from free-range chicken breasts and Jamaican spicing, is pretty good, as are the turkey meatballs (organic turkey, kale, red chili pepper and carrots). The “marinated and grilled . . . Korean BBQ organic tofu” was a bit dry and lacked zest. The “kale-shredded beef” (grass-fed “tender beef, slow-cooked in vegetable stock”), which is a dollar extra, was swimming in its own juices and looked unappealing.
Among the bases, a fluffy quinoa is flecked with bits of peas, carrot, corn kernels and — wait for it! — steamed kale. The brown rice is accented by dots of red pepper and brussels sprouts. A more austere foundation of “mixed greens” actually contains just one green — shredded raw kale. Its other components are purple cabbage and bright orange carrots.
Kale’s best cooking comes out in the vegetable side dishes. Among my favorites were slightly sweet roasted brussels sprouts tossed in chili-hoisin sauce; cumin-spiced green beans and garbanzos; mashed sweet potatoes; a subtle curried cauliflower with bits of kale; a salad of beets with bits of kale and cheese; and a long-simmered spaghetti squash. A long-sautéed dish of chopped kale in a slightly sweet vinaigrette was also good.
Nonetheless, most customers seem to come for the smoothies and juices, most of which have no kale in them whatsoever. As for the ones with kale in them, I still find it unsettling to think of a tall glass of green liquid as dinner.
And don’t bother with the kale-spiked cookies and muffins. Baked goods are not suitable vehicles for grassy greens and you should steer clear of the experiments here. Have a banana instead.
The staff at Kale is relaxed and friendly, although it can take them a while to produce a smoothie. While most of the traffic is carry-out, you can also eat on the premises although the decor is strictly fast food, despite the colorful pictures of various types of kale. Sadly, there is no such thing as free water and there are no restrooms.
Kale is open Monday through Thursday from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Fridays from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. It is located at 342 Lexington Avenue between 39th and 40th Streets. (212) 867-5252