Bowls the way you want them
by M.B. Lewis
From the December, 2019 issue
New to the west side, CoreLife Eatery's building rises out of the Maple Village parking lot with trendy lighting behind a glassed-in front. A couple people told me they mistook it for a gym until they saw the word "Eatery," which is less prominent in a toned-down font.
Fitness of a sort is part of the plan: their website's home page proclaims a "focus on promoting the power of clean and healthy food to enhance performance." Founded a few years ago in upstate New York, CoreLife has holistic aspirations for our corporate fast-casual age.
An inviting wall of vibrant raw chopped vegetables is the backdrop to a long table of sous-chef-style recessed containers, plus big kettles, grills, and bright-colored drinks in self-serve dispensers. But any illusion that you are headed to a self-serve salad/hot bar is dispensed as you make your way through the photo- and menu-walled gauntlet. The array of favorite bowls or suggested combos awaiting, complete with allergen and special diet codes, is truly daunting.
Cheery attendants are on station to help with your questions. Kudos to these patient souls for helping newbies navigate the pricing structure and permissible ingredient swap-outs of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of entrees that could be made.
Arriving for our first visit on a chilly day, our party of three selected an eclectic trio of bowls. Talking to an ordering attendant (concierge?) revealed a first surprise: the Ann Arbor franchise makes its own soup broth--"with leftover veggies every day," she said with a wave behind her to the veggies and kettle. "We make everything here."
I thought I could detect a made-here taste in my chicken tortilla chipotle chicken broth bowl, but it was overpowered by the seasoned chicken chunks, spinach, rice, black beans, roasted peppers, shredded cheese, and tortilla strips. Cilantro is suggested as an optional add-on. It was a fine soup, which would probably get more exciting with a few tweaks. The tortilla strips turned mushy, for instance, so I'd
skip them or just get them on the side.
A huge helping of seasoned, roasted pork sirloin (maybe a half-pound and for sure much more than in the menu photo) topped our family friend's Korean barbecue pork warm rice bowl. She got it with the prescribed purple rice blend, kimchi, sesame sriracha sprouts, and spicy (mainly garlickly) broccoli. At the spice and nut sprinkle-in station at the end of the counter, though, she made a discovery that wowed us all: crisp dried lemongrass snips. They look like pale scallions, but the lovely citrus-herb flavor would enhance almost any bowl you and/or CoreLife could conjure up.
My adult son, Chris, was the least impressed with his entree, the tuna poke fire-warm rice bowl. Amid gulps of water, he explained: "If I think it's spicy, then it probably is really spicy. The mixture of warm ingredients and cold ingredients average it out in a way I don't love. I know you can make your own bowl, and I probably should have."
At this point, Chris made a grrrr funny face and took another gulp of water. He ended putting some of the delicious Greek yogurt bleu cheese dressing we had ordered with our roasted sweet potato side dish to cool down his fiery bowl (fiery spice, that is--thermally, it was room temperature). That kind of cross-cultural culinary experience probably happens often at CoreLife. He also made several trips back to the colorful array of dispensers of cold fruit, veggie, and tea drinks--some of which, like beet lemonade, were both unique and delicious. The counter staff had encouraged us to mix the brews and taste many; refills come gratis.
For my second visit, with a friend who's been a fan of CoreLife since it opened, we ordered healthy salad bowls. I enjoyed the sriracha ginger tofu and "ancient" grains, lightly customized with a half-spinach swap-out for the hefty kale base, plus lots of dried lemongrass. My friend replaced the rice in her ranch flank steak warm rice bowl with spinach--"to cut calories and add nutrition"--and switched the ranch dressing for cucumber-basil. We shared a side order of beets; it was a bit undercooked, but its miso-sesame-ginger was another winner among dressings.
As we headed out to the soundtrack of Rihanna's Wild Thoughts, I realized it's probably possible to work the CoreLife concept until you get exactly what you want. Deals await those who figure out the smartest swaps allowed without a surcharge, but I would need more than two visits to master that. Those who eat gluten-free, vegan, paleo, raw, or another special diet should find it easier to be satisfied here than at most places in town. Once you're comfortably versed in the CoreLife system, you can even order ahead.
205 N. Maple
Small bowls, sides, and soup $3- $9.45, bowls (favorite and build-your own), $6.45-$11.95.
Daily 11a.m.-9 p.m.
Wheelchair, vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free friendly.
[Originally published in December, 2019.]
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