Healthy Restaurant Eating

By The Restaurant Dieter

Lent and the temptation of fried fish

NOTE; Sorry some of the photos are sideways. My technical adviser is looking into why this keeps happening when I file posts from my phone.

Lent began yesterday. For the faithful, it’s 40 days of sacrifice and denial leading to the renewal of Easter.

As a kid, it meant a half-hearted and little-enforced effort to give up some little pleasure — a favorite candy maybe. It also meant fish on Friday, which everyone hated. In the Midwest, the fish was rarely fresh, and then there was my sister’s terror of death by undiscovered fish bone. (It remains with me even today; thanks sis.)

But the Lord provided. In 1965, McDonald’s went national with its first non-hamburger sandwich: the deep-fried Fillet-o-Fish.

Now there was religion I could get behind. As my husband says, “I’d eat a sweat sock if you deep fried it.”

Not being religious these days, I typically realize it’s Lent when the fish sandwich promotional billboards go up at fast food menu counters. That’s what happened Thursday at Wendy’s.

And right away, I could feel my tastebuds hankering for this:

Wendy’s fish sandwich

But something intervened and I ordered this:

Wendy’s Apple Pecan Chicken Salad

God or willpower? You decide.

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Salads aside, fast food is getting worse, not better for you

Forget all that stuff about the fruit cup or the salad that landed on the menu. It masks a 30-year trend of fast food meals overall getting worse, not better. They’ve gotten more bigger, more fattening and saltier.

That’s the conclusion of research published recently by Boston and Tufts universities in The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The study looked at 30 years of fast food menus at restaurants such as McDonald’s, Dairy Queen and KFC.

Between 1986 and 2016, deserts grew by 62 calories per decade; entrees gained 30 calories per decade; and sodium grew as well each decade — 4.6 percent for entrees, 3.9 percent for sides and 1.2 percent for deserts.

With about 37 percent of U.S. adults consuming some fast food every single day, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, it’s not what you’d call good news. Fast food has been implicated in rising rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

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Restaurants for eating healthy in Atlanta during the Super Bowl

Cold and fresh oysters from W.H. Stiles Fish Camp at Ponce City Market.

The Super Bowl supposed to be all about the 7-layer dip and the wings in front of the TV, right? Well, tell that to The New York Times, which earlier this week weighed in with a visitors’ game plan for “eating well in Atlanta.”

Writer Kim Severson, who lives in Atlanta, highlighted some of the better known — and some little known — restaurants visitors should consider. So here’s some insight on her favorites and how they stack up for dieters.

The article gives a prominent shout-out to Ponce City Market. One of the food stalls highlighted is W.H. Stiles Fish Camp from chef Anne Quatrano, whose Bacchanalia has been a leader in Atlanta fine dining for more than two decades. It’s one of my go-tos at Ponce. (One reason: a decent amount of inside seating. Don’t get me started on the special hell that is wandering inside the food hall, asking, “Is this seat taken?” It is.)

A weight-conscious diner at W.H. Stiles can feel pretty safe with a Poke bowl, oysters, Georgia Coast clams and poached shrimp. I’ve purchased a few of the shrimp — they’re local, sizeable, sweet and firm — at $1.75 each and thrown them on the $9 wedge salad with fresh, housemade dressing.

Tiny Lou’s is another hot newcomer that attracted Severson’s attention. It’s in the basement of Hotel Clermont, a former dive hotel that now has spiffy condos. (The divey strip bar is still open for business; a dancing girl on the menu advertises that Lou’s is “above where the ladies dance.” ) Sadly, they’ve cut the crudites with Green Goddess dressing. More than once, that bouquet of beautiful cold vegetables saved me.

But there are still plentiful vegetables among the sides, and daily, a vegetarian gnocchi. They’ve also been willing to toss a grilled chicken breast on that when I’ve wanted to add some protein to the mix.

Revival in Decatur from chef Kevin Gillespie made the cut. It is great Southern cooking, but as my review awhile back noted, not exactly a place for a lot of low-calorie options. So eat light that day.

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Taco Bell to test vegetarian menu

Taco Bell is planning to offer a more extensive vegetarian menu in 2019, the company recently announced. Count me as more than casually interested.

My fondness for Taco Bell goes deep. There are times when the hunger for ersatz Tex-Mex will not be silenced. This craving dates back to college days in the late 1970s, when the closest restaurant to the student newspaper was a Taco Bell. The staff had a love-hate relationship with the chain.

“I’m going to Taco Death to pick up dinner. Does anyone want anything?” someone would shout as the evening deadlines approached.

Still a couple of bean burritos — vegetarian before its time, I guess — were filling and less than a dollar. For students, it was convenient and cheap — and in its own guilty pleasure way, kind of good.

The food was a bargain for poor students.

Taco Bell hasn’t said much about the details for the new vegetarian menu. The chain’s website has a placeholder for vegetarian offerings consisting of what’s available now. And it’s relatively easy to assemble a vegetarian meal from what is already on the menu.

Some years back, Taco Bell promoted a series of “fresco” menu items that were intended to be healthier than the normal fare. Even though the fresco promotion is over, there are still calorie-conscious options that are under 350 calories and under 10 grams of fat each. Calorie-conscious is the key word there, because I wouldn’t call them exactly healthy.

The 150-calorie chicken soft taco “fresco style” gets 1/3 of its calories from fat and has 430 mg of sodium, which is a lot. The Centers for Disease Control urges American adults to consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium a day. That is supposed to improve, too; the company also announced that it would reduce sodium by 25 percent by 2025.

So here’s hoping the chain is successful with adding more vegetables and reducing sodium, because sometimes the bell just rings. When that happens, I’ve gotta go get lunch. And don’t get me started on the guiltiest pleasure of all, the bacon breakfast crunchwrap.

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Review: The relative safety of kale salad at Cinebistro Brookhaven in Atlanta

My husband has a great rule of thumb: When surveying the menu at an unfamiliar restaurant, ask yourself: “Do I believe this restaurant can really pull off this dish competently?”

Here’s the scenario. We are at a restaurant that, say, has TV screens playing sports, the kind men like to watch. The tables are bare. The napkins are rolled around the silverware and of an easy-care synthetic cloth. Somewhere on the menu is a “bacon ranch,” a “honey chipotle” or “chili-lime” something-or-other. America’s favorite flavor cliches reign supreme.

Which begs the question: Can the kitchen staff can actually pull off a perfectly cooked fillet of beef with a green peppercorn sauce?

At times like these, hubby’s philosophy is to get the hamburger. It’s safe.

The menu at Cinebistro Brookhaven, for example, comes to mind. It has a Korean cauliflower with a pineapple kimchi. It has a chicken with a spicy quince paste and guava sauce.

Kimchi? Guava sauce? Korean? Seriously?

On a recent visit, it seemed time for another burger. But both hubby and I would be rounder than we are now if we always went with the burger route. This time we had salads.

Hubby took the biggest risk by ordering the sesame seared tuna salad. This is not a restaurant at which the server asks how you’d like the tuna cooked. It came “perfectly adequate,” hubby says. High praise indeed.

I played it safer and ordered a kale salad with chicken breast. The salad came with almond slivers, dried cherries, sliced radish, pickled red onion and a kind of sweet pecorino vinaigrette. The chicken was obviously precooked and a bit dry. And pecorino vinaigrette? Huh? Wha? Where?

Maybe I should have ordered that hamburger.

The kale salad with grilled chicken at Cinebistro.
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Emilia-Romagna, Italy: Just show me the food, please

Folks who read my earlier post about eating our way through Emilia-Romagna asked me to skip all the blabbering and just show the food.

I’m happy to oblige.

Voi mangiate

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Emilia-Romagna, Italy, review: What happened when I ate at Osteria Francescana, ‘The World’s Best Restaurant’

My spouse started urging me a year before: “What kind of special trip should we plan for your 60th birthday?”

That sent me off considering all sorts of once-in-a-lifetime trips: Antarctica and the basecamp at Mt. Everest in Nepal actually were on the list briefly.

But sanity prevailed. I decided that most important was to spend time with my husband and two dear friends who now live in Europe. We settled on a relaxing week eating our way through one of Italy’s best food regions, Emilia-Romagna. I’d gotten the idea from a travel article and was really sold by reading “Emilia-Romagna, Italy: A Personal Guide to the Little Known Places Foodies Will Love.”

The excellent guide emphasized small towns and quaint, humble, family-run restaurants that served fresh, unprocessed local food.

Emilia-Romagna, in northern Italy, extends along a line about 20 kilometers southeast of Milan to the Adriatic Sea. It’s home to Bologna, Parma, Modena, Ravenna and a bunch of cities with names you likely wouldn’t recognize.

More importantly, it’s the birthplace of amazing food known the world over: Parmesan cheese, prosciutto, mortadella (the Italian cousin of bologna), balsamic vinegar, pancetta, bolognese sauce and more.

The Parmesan cheese was plentiful and wonderful

It also happens to be home to…the 2018 World’s Best Restaurant, Osteria Francescana in Modena. That’s not the kind of coincidence that my husband, who relishes eating at big-name restaurants, could pass up.

He managed to snare a highly-coveted reservation for one of the 12 tables at this temple to high-concept cooking. It is owned and operated by celebrity chef, Massimo Bottura. He recently was featured in a Netflix video series called Chef’s Table, describing his creative process. He clearly relishes the role of culinary heretic.

With just 12 tables in the room, it was easy for Bottura to make the rounds, so all guests got to offer adulation to the genius himself. With a curt bow of introduction, he struck me as tiny and thin, with a thatch of mad-scientist, gray hair and fashionable black eyeglasses sized for a horse. Yes, our little foursome assured him, we were enjoying our dinner.

The seasonal tasting menu was over-the-top in concept, execution — and yes, definitely the size of the check. One of the courses was his famous “Five Ages of Parmigiano Reggiano in Different Textures and Temperatures,” which goes for 70 Euro a la carte. It came to the table as described — the cheese beautifully prepared both cold and hot and in forms from crisp to foamy to creamy. It’s well known as one of his signature dishes. In my mind, it compensated for two dishes that used eel to unpleasant effect.

(None of the photos of food accompanying this article are from Osteria Francescana. It did not seem like the place to whip out a camera, which I probably did a bit too much of anyway.)

No matter, really; dinner at Osteria Francescana was not even our favorite. In fact, we found the humble, family-run restaurants the most satisfying.

We went during the mid-October to mid-November season for truffles. A pasta came with a heap of meaty slices them, not a measly dusting from a fine grater. All the pastas — all homemade — came in reasonable portions of a cup or less as part of a meal, rarely as the whole meal. The salads and vegetables were as wonderful as the pastas and main courses.

At Corte di Ca’ Bosco, they don’t skimp on the truffles.

One night we drove to the foothills of the Apennine Mountains for dinner at Corte di Ca’ Bosco in Castello di Serravalle. We ate in a small, dark and romantic dining room that used to house the cows at night, now decorated with antiques and farm memorabilia. Mirella, one of the owners, waited on us. Her husband, Andrea, is known locally as Ringo, DJ della griglia or the “DJ of the grill,” as the restaurant’s specialty is grilled meats.

Our party nearly wept at a salad composed of radicchio, endive, sweet cherry tomatoes, parmesan cheese and grilled mortadella with a balsamic dressing. I started (my primi course) with a fresh pasta tossed in a walnut sauce and then moved on to a fillet of beef with shaved truffle. My friend had a mixed grill with the best sausage I’d ever tasted. After hearing my praise, Andrea fired up a few more links and sent them to our table.

The salads and vegetables were as great as the other courses.

Here’s the kicker of the whole trip:

We traveled the region by car and did not get a lot of exercise — yet I only gained a couple of pounds. (Truth be told: Some days our ONLY activities were driving somewhere for lunch; napping in the afternoon and driving to another restaurant for dinner.)

The fact that I didn’t come home feeling bloated and overstuffed can be chalked up to two things: the moderate portions and the famous Mediterranean Diet, which is all about eating fresh and unprocessed food.

Viva l’Italia!

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Review: Apres Diem in Atlanta: The same 4 salads + 1 surprise

We are going to see a movie at the Midtown Art Cinema in Atlanta. The closest restaurant is Apres Diem, right outside the door.

Time for a salad, right? The menu has the same choices you see nearly everywhere: nicoise, Caesar, Greek, spinach.

But then lo and behold: dried fruit? Whoa!

Hat’s off to them for trying.

I went for the unimaginative Greek. The dried fruit sounded a little too sweet. But you might be more adventurous and enjoy.

Maybe next time.

I’ll have the salad with grilled chicken breast.
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Sodexo provides healthy cafeteria food

Grilled salmon and several choices of vegetable are always available at our company’s Sodexo-managed cafeteria. Today it’s chipolte-roasted sweet potato and steamed asparagus.

If you’re trying to eat healthy, the company cafeteria can be your worst enemy. This has even proved to be the case at hospitals.

If you do not want to eat healthy, our cafeteria is happy to accommodate you. On pasta day alone, there’s a long line and the portions are immense. You can get burgers and fries, fried vegetables, Chinese food, Philly cheesesteaks and big Mexican bowls.

But every day — every single day — there are at least two varieties of simply grilled fish and at least six choices of vegetables. At breakfast, you can have your omelet made with whole egg, egg white or half-and-half.

Our cafeteria is run by the institutional food giant, Sodexo. A quick survey of its website suggests it has gotten the memo that not everybody wants indulge at lunch to salve their work stresses. In October 2018, it announced that it was adding 200 new recipes to its menus that are plant-based.

Unless something on the daily menu really, really calls to me, I pretty much always get the grilled salmon and two vegetables. It’s a safe bet that tastes good and balances out whatever damage was done or will be done soon.

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Back with a new attitude about food and weight

It’s true in any language. Diets don’t work.

So where have I been?

Well, like a lot of bloggers, my desire to write after a day of work waxes and wanes. And for more than a year, it’s been waning.

That’s not the only reason. I’ve also continue to think about food and health. I don’t endorse dieting — at least as it concerns the defintion “a special course of food to which one restricts oneself, either to lose weight or for medical reasons.” Simply put, scientists are becoming convinced that dieting doesn’t work.

At 60, I’m the same size I was in high school, college and my early 20s. Most pictures from any point in my life show me with the same 36-inch waistline. At one point it got to 38, but mostly, I’ve been a 36 for years. Those two periods in which I got to 31 and 34 were a result of my exercising like a fiend and starving myself. I was eating a no-fat, turkey-and-cheese sandwich and a microwaved baked potato dipped in barbecue sauce for dinner. That’s no way to live.

I’ve come to the conclusion that first: the sane approach is to eat real food. By this I mean food that comes from fresh ingredients, cooked at home, with none of the salt-fat-and-unpronounceable words on prepared foods’ ingredient labels. Second, I also try to balance my choices; if I’ve had something rich and incredible, the next meal might be a salad with lots of vegetables, nuts and protein. The fact that I truly enjoy the latter helps.

So let’s continue the journey, shall we? Under new management, of course.

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