Humans used to fail in the pursuit of virtue because it was difficult. Nowadays we don’t even try — virtue it is not demanding so much as it is unfathomable. What would a virtuous life even look like? What would virtue’s rewards be? Thus we are denied the meaningful struggle that once lent drama to life, the sort that animated the Confessions of Augustine and Rousseau. Instead, we get the virtue-charlatans we deserve — the likes of Jordan Peterson or Mari Kondo, both of whose demanding spiritual and psychological “insights” mostly call on their followers to clean up their rooms.
Denied a more substantive struggle, we like to get caught up in the compensatory virtue-drama of food. Where else can we so easily and tangibly experience the pleasures of self-congratulation (in health, ethics, environmentalism)? Or the guilty relief of self-indulgence (along with complicity in self-destruction and animal murder)? Virtue and sin are right there on the menu to choose from, and they deliver it to your table.
At LB Kitchen, you can order virtue at the counter and it arrives at your rustic wooden table in a rustic earthen bowl filled mostly with vegetables and whole grains. They offer comparatively less sin (but there is some).
Just how virtuous is LB Kitchen? So virtuous that if you pair avocado toast with a glass of prosecco ($13 for both) they will give a dollar to Full Plates, Full Solutions, a nonprofit effort to curb hunger. So virtuous that half the customers have yoga mats. So virtuous that they are out of the wild boar rendang and instead recommend a dish called “All the Vegetables.” And it’s a good recommendation. Tender farro turns maroon under a tart, picklish pile of purplish beets, cabbage and squash. The squash brings a little sweetness, while roasted brussels sprouts and arugula add some bitter. That avocado toast is great too — a big, soft pile kissed with pungent truffle oil smeared over soft seedy bread.
So LB Kitchen shows that virtue can taste very good. The space is lovely too, with big windows and lots of wood. It is women-run (LB stands for the owners Lee and Bryna) and mostly women-staffed. They do it in knit-caps and very pleasantly. On our visit, the one bro on staff wears a hat with a beer logo, but it’s a local microbrew. He “hasn’t really tried” the wine. Even the cocktails seem vaguely ethical — they are made with sake rather than something harder. LB have been doing breakfast and lunch for a year, but their dinner service is pretty new and quite nice.
It’s not clear if the persistent use of bowls at LB is an exhortation to mix everything up, like a bi bim bap or a buddha bowl. Some dishes benefit from it, like the bahn mi bowl in which a nice spicy mayo lurked beneath the spice-kissed tofu and pickled vegetables, or the Saturday bowl, where the yolk of a fried egg mixed nicely with farro and creamy ricotta. There is meat on the menu at LB, like the thick bacon in the Saturday bowl, but it's the exception rather than the rule. The breakfast sandwich, for example, uses kimchi rather than sausage to add chew and spice.
Is there something salvageable here, at these last suppers, that marks our long decline as seekers of virtue? Having sunk low enough where we think of virtuous living mostly in terms of stuff we chew, can we hit bottom and find our way back? Spots like LB Kitchen, by making wholesomeness so palatable and appealing, suggest that maybe food-as-ethics could give the bottom bounce, and serve as a spring-board to more ambitious pursuits. Satkunandan’s book Extraordinary Responsibility suggests that even the most calculating and pettifogging approaches to morality require an ineffable and incalculable experience to convert one to the good life. Might good food that seems virtuous spark a joy that can inspire us this way? It’s a slim hope, but at LB Kitchen you can taste that optimism, if you try.
LB Kitchen | 249 Congress St, Portland | Mon-Sat 8 am-8 pm | www.lbkitchenportlandme.com | 207.775.2695 | bowls around $13