click to enlarge bartlettimage-0736.jpg

Photo by Robert Bartlett

Lake Nona's Bolay lets you build guilt-free, gluten-free bowls of beauty 

I didn't really know much about Bolay before making the drive down to the Lake Nona eatery: Didn't know it was a Florida-based, fast casual, build-a-bowl chain. Didn't know the recipes were crafted by Wolfgang Puck protégé Martin Oswald. Didn't know it was a venture by Outback Steakhouse co-founder Tim Gannon and his polo champion son Chris Gannon. Didn't know there were any polo-champion restaurateurs. But most surprising was that I didn't know everything we'd eaten, and duly enjoyed, was gluten-flipping-free. That realization came only after picking up a to-go menu on our way out the door. "100% Gluten Free," read the menu's footer. I gave the digital menu board at the front of the restaurant a cursory glance and, sure enough, a sliver of text on the lower-left corner of the flatscreen confirmed it. I'm guessing the GF tag turns many a potential patron off, so keeping that fact on the down low seems a prudent tack for Bolay, a portmanteau of "bowl" and "play."

Not sure why I didn't see it on the menu board when ordering – I guess I was too focused on wrapping my head around the size options (small "bol" $8.29; large "bol" $10.99; kids "bol" $4.99) and taste-testing the various "bases" on which to build. We sampled everything from black rice and orange-basil quinoa to Asian sweet potato noodles and kale; the problem was deciding. I liked all the bases and couldn't make up my mind, but, after much deliberation, settled on jasmine rice and kale for my large "bol," which, in addition to two bases, gets you two veggies, two proteins, one add-on and sauce. I went overboard with the veggies and opted for four instead of two, which cost me $3 more. I was a bit famished after a workout and, after already selecting roasted Brussels sprouts and herb-roasted potatoes, the gorgeous florets of ginger broccoli and smoky cauliflower proved too powerful to resist. Then the proteins – barbecued chicken and steak au jus (a premium, made-to-order option which cost an additional $2) seemed appropriate choices followed by an add-on of minted tomatoes, a little cilantro and some Parmesan cheese along with a side of cilantro pesto sauce. It looked bloody gorgeous, I have to say and, apart from that pesto, the ingredients – all 11 of them – meshed superbly well.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ROBERT BARTLETT
  • Photo by Robert Bartlett

I didn't care much for the other sauces I tried – a vinegar-heavy spicy Thai and a carrot ginger which my dining comrade selected for his bowl of black rice, cilantro noodles, pork tenderloin and lemon chicken. Meat, by the way, didn't suffer from the over-charring I often see at Chipotle. No, these morsels were moist, tender and a helluva lot more corpulent. Just watching my guest ambush the meat and crunch through the broccoli and cauliflower with the sort of ravenous abandon reminiscent of an Animal Planet documentary was a pleasure in and of itself.

Amid all that violent mastication, I made out the words, "Man, I wish there was a Bolay closer to us," after which his predatory eyes locked into the gluten-free chocolate chip cookie ($1.50) and snickerdoodle ($1.50). Turns out a Bolay will open in the Sprouts plaza in Winter Park in the coming weeks, and another near UCF later this year. "Every day we're brusselin'" read the punny shirt of one of Bolay's servers which, intentional or not, revealed an industry truth. Franchising and expansion is an inevitable effect of success, necessary for survival, and just part of the hustle and flow of life in the fast-casual lane.

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