There was no question my expectations were set to a different level when I visited CoreLife Eatery along Coliseum Boulevard.
The chain restaurant with locations in 11 states is all about health. It is not strictly vegan or vegetarian, but it promises no artificial colors or flavors, no high-fructose corn syrup and all of its items are GMO-free.
So, the deep-fried-loving me who makes no apologies about cooking a burger in a pool of butter and then topping it with a slice of processed American “cheese” went in with an open mind and an open palate.
There was plenty of meat to choose from as well as vegetarian and vegan offerings, but the facet of CoreLife that left the biggest impression on me was the drink menu. The restaurant offers a plethora of teas and lemonades flavored with fruit juices, vegetable juices and herbs.
There are many to choose from and you can have as much as you want.
I loved trying them all – though there were a couple I wished I had never tried – and fell in love with the cucumber basil lemonade and the beet lemonade, which was the sweetest drink I found.
I did chuckle a bit at the irony of a health-driven restaurant having drink dispensers that required you to push your cup against a lever instead of pushing a button. I hate having to do that because I wonder how many people have drank from their cups then rubbed the tainted rims of them all over those public levers to get refills. I used a spoon to push my levers.
By far the most enjoyable meal I had was the Roasted Korean BBQ Pork Power Plate.
For starters, the pork was fantastic. It was heavily sauced with a thick, zippy, orange sauce and was very tender. Though it had some heat from its gochujang-style sauce, it was far less than the staff members warned me it might contain.
It was paired with roasted beets and sweet potatoes and I chose the tri-colored quinoa to go with it.
The beets were nice as some were well done and a little crisp while others were still a tad raw inside, which was actually nice because it added diversity. The sweet potatoes were also nicely seasoned to offset their sweetness.
The Tuna Poke Fire Rice Bowl had warm sticky purple rice in place of quinoa and, again, the spiciness was far less than the servers made it out to be. They asked me more than once if I was OK with it spicy, so I assume there is a section of spice warnings in the training manual.
The tuna was of nice quality, the pickled cabbage, jalapeños and red onions really brought a nice punch of vinegar bite and textural contrast, but the rice was a bit softer and less sticky than I hoped. It was a decent choice but could have been better.
The Greens and Ancient Grains Bowl left me wanting more. And the more that I wanted was dressing, but, of course, dressing was the least healthy part of the dish, so I digress. Warm quinoa was surrounded by shredded kale and peppery arugula, tomatoes, corn, chickpeas, spicy broccoli and shredded white cheddar cheese.
All the ingredients stood out and the addition of cheese helped make this seem less dietary, but it was a tad bland due to the sparse amount of dressing. I would also suggest adding falafel to your bowl to give it more life as CoreLife's had a nice flavor though its price was a bit salty – the only salty thing I found there – at $1.25 per round.
Speaking of salty, I wished the Shittake Mushroom and Roasted Tofu Broth Bowl, a vegetarian selection, had been.
The tofu in this sort of take on Vietnamese pho could not have been better. The roasting process done to it before it was added to the soup gave it a real hearty flavor and its texture was firm enough to make the soup interesting but not so firm it lost its creamy integrity.
The bowl also had big, meaty mushrooms, shredded napa cabbage and kale, sprouts, lemongrass, ginger and sliced almonds, but I couldn't help but miss noodles. And the broth might as well have been hot water because it had zero flavor. I asked for soy sauce, a soy sauce alternative or any condiment to give it life but struck out.
I get that the flavors are going to be muted in a dish like this, but it was way too bland for even my bland expectations.
And I won't even bother to tell you much about the chicken and rice noodle soup, which at least had noodles but suffered from the same fate.
The service was decent though once you left the ordering line you were on your own as I was never checked on by anyone during my visits. And its layout is pretty much the staple theme for all upstart chains – modern, clean, well-lit and nondescript.
Overall, the freshness of the ingredients and flavor of the meats – I also found the beef I sampled from the Ranch Steak Bowl to be quite good – made CoreLife a place for some, but, of course, not all.
There was enough that I would be able to order something I liked, but not enough to make me crave anything other than those drinks.
There are already a few mixtures I am eager to test out next time.
Restaurant: CoreLife Eatery
Address: 407 Coliseum Blvd. W.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Tuna Poke Fire ($11.95), Korean Pork Power Plate ($11.45), broth bowl ($7.95; $8.95; $10.95), greens and grains bowl ($7.95; $8.95; $10.95)
Rating breakdown: Food: ★ 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at email@example.com; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.
Out of a possible five