A few years ago, a health scare forced me to change my relationship with what I eat. After spending a few days in the hospital, I had a sort of culinary PTSD. A twinge in my chest would thwart my desire to eat bacon, and a loss of breath would remind me that I didn’t need to spread a tablespoon of butter on every triangle of toast. But old habits die hard — partially because fat and salt lord over my eating decisions like Rasputin, but more so because most of the healthy food options in Austin mistake wholesome for good.
Recently, however, the health food climate has shifted. As much as I would like to say the change was homegrown, many of the restaurants taking a new approach to health food have been imports. Those outside entrepreneurs saw something that many local restaurateurs did not see: people wanted to eat right, but not by sacrificing the experience of dining. Arizona restaurateur Sam Fox and his Fox Restaurant Concepts group got their faster than most with True Foods Kitchen (now majority owned by P.F. Chang's) and Flower Child, which is opening its second location in downtown Austin today (the first opened in Domain Northside in November 2016).
Even for those folks like me who shudder at the mere mention of diet, there is much to like on the menu. At first glance, it isn’t all that different from other places that operate under the wellness banner. There’s an emphasis on vegetables and whole grains, the proteins lean towards lighter choices like salmon, tofu, or chicken, and everything seems to be either organic or grass-fed. As one might expect, there are plenty of bowls, salads, and wraps. But Flower Child differentiates itself from the earlier generation by adopting the international ingredients and techniques of New American cuisine.
A “burrito” bowl uses heirloom beans and a salsa made from of-the-moment guajillo chilis. The Mother Earth bowl arranges stacks of vegetables like sweet potatoes, portobello mushrooms, and avocado with dollops of broccoli pesto and a red pepper miso vinaigrette. The steak-based Rebel wrap rolls up charred onion, French Port Salut Cheese, and a horseradish yogurt. All are highly colorful and carefully plated, a far cry from the beige piles that kept clean food niche for decades. The Forbidden Rice Bowl, with black pearl and red japonica varieties and a tumble of vegetables ranging from bok choy to carrot, is especially lively. The addition of shaved beef adds some heft.
Flower Child also allows for a little indulgence with desserts like olive oil cakes and gluten-free brownies and cookies; lemonade is flavored with seasonal ingredients like honey orange cinnamon, and the restaurant also offers a selection of organic wines and local beers. Plus, a wide variety of cheese is used with impunity in many of the dishes. It’s a tightrope act, allowing customers to feel virtuous without necessarily feeling deprived.
The environment helps, too. Cute touches like a basket for yoga mats reinforce the brand's identity without a whiff of patchouli. With French rattan chairs, whitewashed wood, and ivy trailing from a ledge that runs the perimeter of the dining room, the decor eschews coffee house art and garish colors in favor of a contemporary, slightly rural feel. The floor-to-ceiling windows make it especially inviting for lunch.
The offerings at Flower Child may never quite replace a charcuterie board, but it has done something just as unlikely — convinced me that joy can be found even in the things that are good for me. My doctor would be pleased.