Avocado toast–my first reaction was to roll my eyes. Brought to us from Australia via L.A. restaurant Sqirl, where vowels are as scarce as a sandwich’s top slice, the dish caters to the millennial generation’s preference for lighter, shareable plates, healthier options, quick takeout, and photographable food. For the same reasons, bowls–Buddha, grain, poke, acai–are everywhere now: on menus, in magazines and recipe websites, on Instagram and Pinterest, and anywhere else social media reaches.
Millennials, not baby boomers, are now driving dining trends. But like all trends, there are good versions and bad. Here’s one boomer’s look at what’s on offer at a few spots near campus.
But first, for those who don’t fall for new infatuations and tend to eat just what they’ve always eaten, a few definitions:
Avocado toast: avocado sliced or mashed on toast, usually whole grain, augmented with spreads and garnishes.
Buddha bowl: AKA grain, power, hippie, or insert-other-trippy-name bowl. A vegetarian meal usually consisting of, but not restricted to, a scoop of cooked healthy grains with colorful raw and/or marinated and/or cooked proteins and vegetables artfully arranged over the top. Usually served cold or mostly cold.
Poke bowl: similar to above but with a rice base and cubed raw fish added.
Acai bowl: kind of a smoothie with solids, eaten with a spoon. Its namesake pureed frozen berries are usually combined with other berries and sliced fruit, nondairy milk, and topped with granola, shredded coconut, and other options.
Wilma’s, SavCo Hospitality’s latest incarnation at the corner of Washington and Division, sports a design concept straight out of Real Simple magazine–uncluttered, clean white lines, plenty of natural materials, green plants, and lounging areas for social media-izing. The menu, displayed on tall boards above the order counter, includes a host of toasts and bowls, along with snacks, sandwiches, and salads. The categories cross lines and do a few loop-de-loops around my definitions above. (When, exactly, does a bowl become a salad? When it’s tossed together higgledy-piggledy?)
Of the four toasts on Wilma’s menu, we tried only the avocado, adding the optional fried egg. Perked up with pickled red onion, red pepper flakes, and a good drizzle of olive oil, the two slices of browned sourdough, with the egg and an entire sliced avocado, are as substantial and delicious as any sandwich, and not bad for $9.
Further along on the menu, under “Bigs,” grain bowls share space with sandwiches and other entrees. The salmon bowl ($15) tripped me over that ambiguous salad/bowl/saute line. “Cauliflower fried rice” suggested a rice-and-vegetable base, but there’s no actual rice. It’s raw cauliflower–the new darling substitute for starches–grated fine and then quickly sauteed, along with a colorful assortment of julienned produce. A small, perfectly cooked rectangle of marinated salmon topped the vegetable mound. Visually, the dish was quite lovely, and, after I jazzed it up with a bit of sriracha and soy sauce from the counter, delicious.
Wilma’s tuna poke bowl ($12) is more typical. Although poke originated in Hawaii as a marinated fish dish, it’s morphed on the mainland into a rice bowl. What hasn’t translated from the original is the marination; often the rice, fish, and vegetables are flavored only with a dressing tossed on at the last minute or, worse, served on the side, making for a rather bland meal. (Rice, after all, is pretty plain stuff.) My solution at other spots has been to ask for additional sauce or dressing, which usually helps immensely. After a taste or two of Wilma’s poke, I did the same.
Most folks enjoy an acai bowl ($9) alone for breakfast or lunch. Shared, we found it also makes a great dessert.
Over at Pocai on Packard, a tiny kitchen, order counter, and two tables pack the minuscule space, leaving little room for storage; the two cooks constantly dance between cutting boards, cookers, and counter, putting out food that’s always fresh and of high quality. The menu is necessarily short, only five items, one being a seasonal special.
A thick, utterly delicious whole-grain square underpins Pocai’s avocado toast ($7), tricked out with whipped feta, pickled red onion, and pea shoots, but it’s sized as a snack, not a lunch. The medium-sized acai bowl ($9; large, $13), though, is generous, with plenty of garnishes floating in its icy base.
While beautifully crowned, the substantial brown rice base of Pocai’s poke bowl (medium, $10; large, $14) demands extra sauce. Similarly, finishing a Sunshine Rice Bowl (medium, $10; large, $14), the weekly special, proved a bit of a slog; even with a Thai-style coconut curry and kimchi from the Brinery, it was underseasoned.
I had a corresponding reaction to Detroit St. Filling Station’s Buddha bowl ($13), which boasts a great diversity of cooked and raw vegetables, along with dried fruits and nuts, over a quinoa base. While each item has merit, this bowl has no unifying concept, and serving the ginger-turmeric dressing on the side only exacerbates the lack of harmony.
I recognize that this might not matter to all eaters. If you’re one of those to whom it does, I recommend the Slurping Turtle’s poke bowls ($18-$20). They feature fewer vegetables than most, but everything, including the sushi rice, is preseasoned and flavored. The result is tasty; no extra dressing required.
Although my sampling was far from exhaustive, it was sufficient to discover I like avocado toast and bowls–well, many of them. And they were all set before me in a matter of minutes–as quickly as a burger, fries, and shake would have been handed to me through the drive-up window at McDonald’s.
Prices, of course, are no match, but as the millennials have helped remind us, better food makes for a healthier population. And it doesn’t hurt if it makes for a great photo.