It's like clockwork. The ball drops on Dec. 31, and by the next morning TV commercials are all about gym memberships, Bowflex and diets. Adopting a righteous new year's eating program can be tricky, given the stew of goofy nutrition information out there. I suppose one strategy that's hard to refute is this: Limit consumption of processed foods and replace them with nutrient-rich whole foods.
Here's a new restaurant that makes that a little easier. Opened two months ago in a space that recently contained the New Orleans-style Taste of Heaven, Fresh Bites is the project of Lebanese husband-and-wife team Samir and Anissa Khalife. Both from Byblos, they came to the United States in 2000 with other careers chugging along (he had a granite business, she was a lawyer), but both had a gnawing dissatisfaction with American food, finding it hard to avoid preservatives, hormones and loads of sugar.
So in true DIY spirit, they opened their own restaurant. It's a modest space with ambitious aims. Adhering to many of the nutrition ideas of Orlando-based Maximized Living (an organization of chiropractors and other doctors who advocate a fitness, nutrition and lifestyle regimen), it's straight-up traditional Lebanese food made from organic produce, grass-fed beef and lamb from Niman Ranch, and all-natural chicken from Springer Mountain Farms.
The Khalifes are exacting about ingredients, an approach that seems especially important in a cuisine that is so ingredient-driven: Preparations are simple, with garlic, lemon, yogurt and herbs providing a counterpoint to straightforward grilled meats.
In a couple of visits I ate my way through most of the menu, many of my fellow customers opting to take theirs to go (the dominance of the order counter in the room perhaps overly persuasive). My first summer restaurant job was working in a Lebanese kitchen, so I'm always thrilled to tuck into a lamb kefta sandwich (minced herbed meat grilled and swaddled in pita; $8.59) or flat patties of kibbeh (a mix of ground lamb and beef with crushed wheat kernels adding textural interest and tooth-resistance; $10.99). Fresh Bites pairs its kibbeh with a ramekin of tangy cucumber yogurt and a little, lemony, perfectly dressed green salad.
Beyond the traditional eggplant dip baba ghanouj ($6.29) and hummus ($5.29, but the baba's smoky lushness beat out the understated chickpea dip), the house veggies really shine. Some plates are garnished with pale pink turnip pickles (punchy, vinegary and salty, with textural snap). And a gorgeous dish of roasted beet greens and kale ($7.29) gets a tiny hit of garlic and onion. I know kale is the It Girl right now, but that's because she's got it going on.
Mujaddara ($5.59) is among my favorite dishes at Fresh Bites, the kind of wholesome, nurturing combination that feels better than a flu shot: Warm brown lentils and white rice in a bowl topped with deeply caramelized (so, sweet but with a whisper of bitterness) onions, it's both homey and sophisticated. Order this and a beef shawarma sandwich ($7.99), with its sides of roasted peppers and potatoes and tiny green salad, and it's a meal for two people.
Some diners have found Fresh Bites via their local chiropractors. In truth, the designated Maximized Living dishes aren't so different from the rest of the menu: fresh veggies, minimal saucing beyond yogurt or lemon, meats cooked cleanly in coconut oil. Pair it all with a fresh lemonade made with stevia (no beer and wine yet, but that's coming), and it's easy to head boldly onward into 2013 without giving Bowflex another thought.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.