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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By now you know that my husband drags me to restaurants I would never think of going. I’d stop at the sandwich shop for lunch, but he wants to dine.
Feeling a little chunky this morning, when the subject of lunch came up I said I just wanted a salad. He looked for a restaurant in Soho on Open Table and picked David Burke Kitchen. (It goes without saying that if a restaurant isn’t in Open Table, it might as well not exist for my husband.)
Asked how he learned of it, he said, “he’s a boldface-name chef,” as if that explained everything. So be it: David Burke, this one’s for you.
My husband had apparently checked the menu before making the reservation and saw it had salads. Only it didn’t — at least not on the brunch menu. “There’s a chicken sandwich,” he said hopefully.
I resigned myself to the sandwich and ordered the starter of raw and pickled vegetables. That began my evolution from negative to positive. The vegetables included crunchy tart fennel, baby carrots, cucumber slices and endive with a portion cup of artichoke puree.
My husband, of course, ordered the tater tots with caviar and crème fraiche — a perfect Baby Boomer food snob dish.
The chicken sandwich came with a nice salad of spinach, arugula and raddichio. The sandwich itself was piled high on buttered toasted focaccia: chicken, a homemade mayo with some heat, a celery root slaw, a fat slice of tomato and red onion.
It was delicious, especially because the paillard of chicken was surprisingly warm and juicy. It’s so easy to overcook and dry out a piece of chicken pounded flat.
The whole lunch was more fattening than my modest salad would have been. But I left most of the bread and salad to compensate.
As I write this, hubby is having dessert — a chocolate hazelnut flan — and a leisurely second glass of wine. He’s happy.
And me? Happy too. Life’s full of compromises, and some of them result in good blog posts.
Any restaurant that makes a Top 10 list by a respected critic is likely to please my husband. He collects foodie merit badges like an over eager Boy Scout. So I said, “Next time we are in New York, let’s try this place.”
In this case the list was by Adam Platt of New York Magazine and Grubstreet and the restaurant was Hao Noodle and Tea by Madam Zhu’s Kitchen. The line on this West Village spot is that it’s run by a real Chinese person who isn’t cooking from the Americanized Chinese restaurant guide. “Zhu comes from Chongqing, Sichuan, and operates restaurants in Shanghai, Beijing, and Hangzhou, and she and her chefs create a menu which reflects elements of all of these evolving regional cuisines,” Platt says.
The restaurant also receives high marks for ambience and decor. There are no red lacquer tables and dragon heads here; only a cool farm-to-table vibe. It’s a far cry from the Americanized Chinese restaurants whose names seem taken interchangably from Column A or Column B of the same limited vocabulary: lucky, Budda, dragon, golden, pearl, garden, lotus, jade, China, Hunan and so on.
From the perspective of one trying to eat in moderation, this is a Chinese restaurant that forgoes the typical American Chinese cuisine. There’s no endless bowl of nutritionally vapid white rice, no portions big enough to wreck a diet in one sitting or provide an enormous portion for the next day or two. Portions are said to be shared, but split among four persons, they amount to a bite or two each at most. The food itself is not low in fat, but you won’t go home stuffed either.
The menu is seasonally influenced and divided by the type of course: cold salads, hot starters, noodles, mains, dim sum and dessert. It’s unclear how to juggle among them, in what order they will appear or what utensils besides one’s own chopsticks to use to serve oneself or others. Go with people who you like and aren’t worried about germs.
The standouts were delicate, tiny fried meatballs; clay pot dumplings made of minced pork with an egg crepe skin in a savory chicken broth; cauliflower stir-fired with chiles and a seafood pancake that was crispy fried but not greasy. The dan dan noodles were silkier and more subtle than the peanut butter laden variety of a typical restaurant, but kind of bland and boring as a result. Overall, it’s a good bet.
The only way to eat mindfully at Decatur’s Revival is to eat light the rest of the day. This is not a restaurant with a lot of light-and-healthy choices. It’s a splurge, and a really good one at that.
Revival is an interesting name for this restaurant situated in an old Decatur home just off the downtown area. It’s been the location of at least two failed restaurants. This effort seems likelier to be successful. It’s by Chef Kevin Gillespie, who also owns the new American dim sum restaurant Gunshow in Atlanta.
The inspiration here isn’t the unlucky building, though. The name comes from the Sunday suppers of Gillespie’s youth. It’s southern with all the trimmings.
Diners can order a la carte from the menu, or choose their own entries as part of the family style dinner for $42 a person. Family style includes entree, the sides and choice of dessert. We chose family style, and it was a lot of food.
The amuse bouche was a pork belly — I gave mine away — with pickled green tomatoes.
The salad, if eaten alone, would have been a pretty healthy choice. It was kale, lightly bruised in a dressing of cider vinegar and egg, with apple chunks, pickled onion and locally sourced Thomasville Tomme cheese. It came with exceptionally tender corn bread and honey butter. Of course I had one.
The salad at Revival was was kale with apples, picked onion, Thomasville Tomme cheese and a boiled dressing of apple cider vinegar and egg
Revival’s corn muffins with honey butter
Two of our number had a juicy pork chop; the third the duck and I had the fried chicken. I limited myself to the one small breast piece, and gave away or left the rest. As with any southern restaurant, the sides starred as much as the main courses. The beans in the beans-and-rice were firm; the flavor and texture had not been cooked out of them. The mac ‘n cheese was gooey good. The greens were smoky and rich.
For dessert, three of our group had the fried apple pie with vanilla ice cream. The pastry itself was buttery, flaky, wonderful. I had a ginger cake with cream cheese ice cream. The latter is a strange flavor by itself, but it worked well with the cake. I tasted both desserts, enjoyed them, and shared or left most of mine.
That’s the secret to eating here. Leave some to take home, share with companions or consign to the food recycling gods.