By Rebecca Bryant
5:58 PM PST, December 30, 2012
Squeezed on all sides by chain shops and eateries in Burbank's Empire Center, Grain Lab is an independent island. The small eatery, which opened last month, has the minimal look of a hip chain, with a slightly industrial-meets-organic laboratory feel with brushed concrete floors and white walls.
Squares hang on the wall, covered with lentils, couscous, white beans, various grains. It brings to mind the kindergartner who, when charged with decorating a paper turkey, decides to cover his with glued-on rice and black beans and cayenne pepper, creating a pungent trail every time the Thanksgiving decorations come out.
You order at the counter at Grain Lab, choosing from sandwiches, salads and soups. If you're on a shopping excursion, it's a fine enough spot for a sit-down meal. But I think of Grain Lab more as a go-to spot for picking up picnic fare.
The menu offers 10 sandwiches, with more on a specials board. We liked the buffalo chicken, tender white meat in a spicy sauce on a hearty warm ciabatta loaf. Red onions, cilantro and jalapeño-jack cheese rounded out the flavors. The fillings of the apple turkey sandwich, with tiny arugula leaves, slices of green apple, blue cheese and homemade aioli were delicious, but I wanted to trade the slices of whole grain bread for more ciabatta.
The standout was the portabello mushroom sandwich. The meaty mushroom was accompanied by mozzarella, mixed greens, roasted peppers, and oven-roasted tomato, on that delicious ciabatta from Culver City's Dolce Forno Bakery.
The Asian chicken salad came in a filling portion, with romaine and mixed greens, snappy jicama, grilled pineapple, mango with tastes of basil, chile and coconut in a sweet lychee vinaigrette. This is the kind of salad that if you assembled it from scratch at home, you'd be too sick of it to enjoy when it came time to eat. Better to let someone else make it for you. The beet salad was fresh-tasting but slightly mundane, with beets, butter lettuce, green apple and walnuts, tossed with chopped chives and apple cider vinaigrette. You can add a protein boost to Grain Lab's multiple salads by asking for chicken, tofu, tuna or steak in them for a bit for money.
The side of couscous salad sounded promising and looked tempting, with Israeli couscous mixed with chunks of vegetables, but it turned out to be a bit too oily, so dressed that it felt gummy. It's worth another try, but I'm tempted to turn to the sweet potato fries instead. We tried the special corn soup on one trip. I'll order it whenever it's on the specials board. It was not so much creamy as velvety, sweet and thick and perfect on a cool day.
Grain Lab is in such an odd location, at the corner of a block of chains at the edge of a shopping center, that I hope it gets the traffic it deserves. Perhaps folks looking beyond the Subway a few doors down will walk a few stops more and discover the friendly service and the watermelon lemonade. Maybe someone will look across from Starbucks and decide they don't feel like another scone after all. Maybe the kid standing in line at Gamestop for the next Xbox whatever will smell the turkey bacon and cheddar from down the way and pop in for a melt.