A few months ago, restaurateur Irene Li appeared at the LongHouse Food Revival summit in upstate New York, where Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold approached her with delight. Seems he was taken with one of her dishes: a bowl of black rice, rye berry, mozzarella curds, pickled cranberries, tomatoes, and cucumbers.
“He told me, ‘Bowls are the food of the future — and you made a very nice bowl of stuff,’?’’ Li recalls. His words were prophetic. Li soon opened Mei Mei by Design in the Innovation District. The focus? Bowls: compact vessels of grains, vegetables, proteins, and sauces.
Gold knows his bowls. His hometown is rife with restaurants like Sqirl (beloved for a sorrel-pesto rice bowl) and Café Gratitude (whose bowls are named things like “Humble’’ and “Grateful’’).
These days, Boston restaurants have channeled the spirit. In the past year alone, fast-casual places like Mei Mei by Design, Whole Heart Provisions, Tahaza Hummus Kitchen, and Pure Cold Press have captivated diners with bowls’ efficiency and flavor, TV dinners for the 21st-century set, most under $10.
“It’s DIY: Bowls offer variety and interesting ingredients, plus they’re healthy and fast,’’ says Mei Mei co-owner Margaret Li.
Maybe it all started here with Chipotle, which, long before its current woes, invaded the East Coast with tortilla-free vessels of lime rice and endless condiments, or with Sweetgreen — the D.C. salad chain known for its grain bowls — which opened locally almost three years ago.
Efficiency and flavor are important, but we have burgers and burritos for that. Bowls go a step further, tapping into a free-spirited, West Coast mysticism, so novel to buttoned-up Easterners. Beat Brasserie chef Ignacio Lopez says he was charged with creating bowls for the Harvard Square restaurant, thanks in part to his California pedigree.
“Beat is sort of bohemian and beatnik-y. We extended that to the bowls,’’ he says, and they’re the restaurant’s top sellers.
As any frugal hippie might remind you, the concept is dazzlingly simple: start with a base of vegetables or grains; add a protein, if you please; drizzle with sauces and spices of choice; and presto — a hearty, efficient meal without extra calories imparted by pesky encumbrances like bread.
At Cambridge’s bowl-focused Tahaza, Emily DeBonis serves bowls with bases like fall-beet hummus, naked in its Technicolor glory, free from its cloak of carbohydrates.
“I was surprised by how well the beet hummus bowl did,’’ she says. “Bowls are so visually appealing. People appreciate their beauty.’’
They’re also soothed by it. Here is the anatomy of an entire meal, layered, visible, and hopefully alluring. After all, what could be more soothing than digging into a bowl? The heartiest foods are served thus: soup, chili, stew. Everything’s out in the open; no surprise ingredients here.
Chefs use this to their advantage. At Concord’s Saltbox Kitchen, Aran Goldstein serves a riff on bibimbap — a mixture of rice, vegetables, egg, and meat — based on Korean dishes he ate growing up in Worcester. His vegetable rice bowl, a subtle homage, always contains pickled vegetables, brown rice, a soft egg, and kimchi.
And yet, “one of the things we want to do here is to try to introduce new flavors and new food experiences. Bibimbap is an introduction to that. We garnish it with seaweed and togarashi and Korean chile sauce. There’s a lot going on, and we’re trying to stimulate people,’’ Goldstein says.
Guests can take ownership of their meal by adding things like pork belly, if so moved, and also enjoy ever-changing fresh vegetables from nearby Saltbox Farm. Bowls are a healthy choose-your-own adventure, empowering the diner with both virtuousness (whole grains! leafy greens!) and creativity (pick your protein! pick your sauce!).
In the era of chef-as-artist, though, where substitutions are sometimes heresy, might bowls be somewhat frustrating? Most hinge on a modular concept: The customer chooses a base, protein, and accoutrements. This could be vexing for the chef who has painstakingly assembled flavor profiles. Isn’t it tempting to say, no! Anything but the tofu with mint sauce! Please, please, just choose the lamb?
Behold the charm of bowls: In addition to being healthy and convenient, they’re also foolproof thanks to meticulous flavor engineering, says DeBonis.
“It was agonizing months prior to opening, making sure every single combination went well together. We had a whole group doing tastings where we would just build, halfway through the bowl, adding other ingredients by trial and error,’’ she says. (Pickled apples were nixed.)
While it might seem that restaurants play fast and loose with their creations, the best bowls are “carefully curated,’’ says James DiSabatino, who runs Allston’s Whole Heart Provisions with chef Rebecca Arnold, formerly of Somerville’s Sarma. At this veggie-focused restaurant, careful pre-planning protects even the most reckless diner.
“My grandfather never had a dish without meat. He didn’t understand someone making that decision for him. But the menu is so curated, you’ll always get a positive result,’’ DiSabatino says.
That’s why people return multiple times per week, says Arnold. Unlike most meals, bowls offer an almost limitless construction of combinations, like edible Legos for adults.
At Whole Heart, a Cassie Style bowl (named for Sarma chef Cassie Piuma) showcases Mediterranean flavors with harissa and chickpeas; the Seoul Style channels Korea with kimchi and bulgogi-style beets; and the Viet Style salutes Southeast Asia with spicy peanut dressing. Or build your own with a base of jasmine rice or marinated kale. Want to get wild with pickled jalapenos? Go crazy! Nobody’s going to judge.
“I do try to limit people to one or two sauces, though,’’ Arnold admits.
The DIY factor ups the appeal, says Ali Fong, who runs Bon Me, a truck-turned-restaurant with a new branch in Chestnut Hill where rice bowls are menu mainstays.
“It’s this modular style of eating, really versatile. You can grab it, take it home, and pop it in the microwave for dinner.’’
The food of the future indeed. Or is it? One of the most popular bowls at Beat Brasserie contains lettuce, sprouted greens, carrots, chickpeas, and raisins — age-old ingredients all. Its name? The Hippie Bowl, naturally.
Kara Baskin can be reached at email@example.com.