2879 University Ave.
"Food was natural. It wasn't processed; it was something the earth provided you with, and it was a natural taste explosion," explains Andrew Schiff, co-founder of North Park's Spread, talking about the perception of food prior to modern processing. "The natural colors and the natural juices from that food made [it] very sensual and very sexual.
"Well, we have forgotten about all of that," continues Schiff, "and we have turned to the quick foods, you know what I mean? The over-processed, the unrecognizable as food-and that is not attractive. That is not sexy. And it shows in the weight gain that society is adding on each and every year. Ask those people if they felt sexier 20 pounds ago-the answer's yes."
While Spread's menu is vegetarian and vegan, the restaurant bills itself as "nouveau comfort food," as opposed to health food. This eschewing of health-food, conventions extends to the decor as well, which is more hipster than hippie. White walls, funky plastic furniture that looks like it came from the set of A Clockwork Orange and rice-paper floor lamps combine to create a soothing atmosphere augmented by mellow electronica and classic R&B played on the Bang & Olufsen stereo. There's also an element of childlike whimsy in the swirling color patterns of the placemats, the child-size water cups and the plastic knives and forks that stand vertically on their sculpted feet.
Too, many of the items on the menu hearken back to childhood. For example, on the brunch menu there's a fluffernutter sandwich, with marshmallow fluff and butterscotch almond butter on your choice of challah (a rich egg bread) or banana chocolate chip bread. Another brunch menu item is the stuffed French toast made from challah and crammed with white-chocolate pretzel peanut butter and sliced bananas, which tastes even better than it sounds.
Nut butters are emphasized at Spread, where more than 80 different varieties of peanut and almond butter are made on the premises-ranging from white-chocolate blueberry to spicy chile. Shiff conceived this product in a moment of frenzied and frustrated inspiration while looking for orange juice at the supermarket. He told his girlfriend (now his wife) that they should abandon their goal of becoming attorneys to pursue making food that could be enjoyed by people of any culture who follow any diet. She assented, so long as they kept the product all natural and avoided transfats and hydrogenated oils, which gave birth to the cafe Nutters, located downtown on C Street. Due to overwhelming demand, they started the jarred product lines Style Peanut Spread and Trend Almond Spread-ultimately leading to the opening of Spread in North Park a couple of years later.
Once you're seated at Spread, your server brings out a plate with samples of nut butters to whet your appetite. The nut butters are featured in many menu items, so the introduction gives you a good idea about what to expect in some of the dishes.
Standout items I sampled included the heirloom tomato bruschetta, the almond salad, the mushroom stew and, again, the stuffed French toast. The heirloom tomato bruschetta is so decadent it's hard to believe it's good for you. Thick slices of oil-crusted challah are heaped with five varieties of heirloom tomatoes chopped and mixed with fresh basil, garlic and olive oil. While traditional bruschetta is hard and crunchy, Spread's is soft and supple. For brunch, Spread serves a breakfast bruschetta that adds farm-fresh eggs to the mix.
The almond salad is a riot of color, flavors and texture. Assembled from organic mixed greens, heirloom tomatoes, strawberries, dried blueberries, feta cheese, English cucumbers and a load of fresh almonds, it's perfectly dressed with balsamic vinaigrette, making it simultaneously sweet, savory and fresh. It's ideal for a couple to share as a meal starter.
The mushroom stew combines tender exotic mushrooms (in this case oyster, hedgehog and chanterelle) and potatoes in a rich cheese sauce made from sharp cheddar, feta and goat cheese seasoned with rosemary. It's extremely decadent, yet it doesn't leave you feeling bloated, which is probably my favorite thing about eating at Spread. Instead of leaving you in a food coma, Spread's cuisine makes you feel awake and energized.
While Spread's concept may seem gimmicky, the food most definitely is not. The hours are kind of odd, so plan ahead. The place is open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and from 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 6 to 10 p.m. on Saturday; and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. for Sunday brunch, which features a live DJ spinning acid jazz.