The Restaurant Dieter is not a mean person. No delight comes from trashing every restaurant. Plus Murphy’s in Atlanta’s Virginia-Highland neighborhood doesn’t deserve it.
It is a perfectly competent restaurant with an admirable track record. It has been around for decades and certainly has some things down pat. For example, if our server was any indication of how they all behave, Murphy’s is great for a person on Weight Watchers or otherwise trying to eat healthy. She recommended dishes and gladly made suggestions on how menu items could be customized to trim the fat.
She even rode to the rescue when I decided it was too cold in the outside patio for my husband and a companion to order desert. She talked to the manager and gave us some to go. Nice.
Server @MurphysAtlanta great abt service, diet requests & even the cold. She's sending home dessert 'cause too cold 2 eat here. #atleats
And not in a good way. A kale-and-broccolini dish is trendy. Putting one on Chick-fil-A’s menu is kind of like Nicki Minaj subbing for Hillary Clinton at an Iowa campaign appearance. To add insult, the Superfood Salad swept off the menu that Southern staple, coleslaw. It seemed like a blue-state raid on the beloved Atlanta-based chain, especially suspicious given Chick-fil-A’s designs on New York City.
For comparison, the large has almost half the sugar you’d find in a 12-ounce can of soda pop. (Admittedly, the new salad has less sugar than the Chick-fil-A coleslaw, which packed 26 grams of sugar into 580 calories.)
Let’s see how long it takes for the coleslaw to return to the menu. Maybe The South will rise again.
The website Eater just released its “National Eater 38: Where to Eat in 2016.” The list was compiled by Eater’s excellent critic, Bill Addison, whom I once tried to hire to write about restaurants for a major publication. Here’s my take on the three restaurants that I’ve sampled, two of them before The Restaurant Dieter launched.
Our meal consisted of like 19 itty-bitty tasting menu courses that might have been invented by a mad scientist. Each time one arrived, our helpful server explained precisely how to eat it. The little white ball in a green liquid was to be tossed back all at once, allowing the ball to collapse and merge its contents with the green liquid. Another dish was set on a pillow of scented air, which slowly deflated and added — we were told — to the sensory experience. Today I can’t remember a thing about the dishes, only the voluble instruction.
The scene was so ripe for parody that when coffee arrived, I asked the server: “Is there some special way we’re supposed to consume this?”
I was so eager to try this restaurant for several reasons: One, the chef was Kevin Gillespie, whose food, whose aw-shucks geniality and ginger bear modesty made him the fan favorite on Bravo’s sixth season of “Top Chef.” Two, I’d eaten at his Woodfire Grill in Atlanta, which was excellent. Three, the restaurant adopted a new serving style akin to Chinese dim sum. The cooks make the rounds with trays and carts; diners choose what looks good, as many or as few plates as they like.
You might guess what happened: Our foursome wanted to taste everything, often taking more than one of each. We wound up eating way more than we should have — not good for one watching calorie intake carefully. When the bill arrived, it was more than $400 — without alcohol. Gulp.
This was my second visit to one of Joel Robuchon’s restaurants; I’d visited its twin in Paris. Both featured tasting menus, served at counters that offered a bird’s eye view of the kitchen doing the work. Every course was modest and crafted with considerable care. Were it not for the crusty French bread, it might have been a modestly healthy meal. But good bread is hard to resist. The full review is here.
That might seem like a lucky break for someone on Weight Watchers. The portion size at some American restaurants — Cheesecake Factory, for instance — often is gargantuan.
Soft scrambled eggs and cold smoked trout
But the portions here were so tiny that The Restaurant Dieter left hungry and just had an apple with some deli turkey. The only thing that emerged from the kitchen as a standard portion was pancakes that a friend ordered.
The brunch menu has just 17 items. including two high-fat sides (frites and creamed kale) and marinated olives for $5. So it was a pretty limited menu.
Three salads: marinated beets, celery root auvergne, lentils and mushrooms
I opted for the three salads: marinated beets, celery root auvergne and lentils and mushrooms.
The dish came with three slices of baguette; 1/2 to 3/4 cup of lentils in a vinaigrette; a single beet; and celery root in a thin mayonnaise-based dressing. I figured 3 Weight Watchers Smart Points for the dressings and 4 for the lentils and left the bread.
As a starter, I had the citrus with yogurt and honey. It consisted of a few grapefruit sections, a few clementine sections atop and honey on the side, as requested.
Citrus, yogurt and honey
It was a nice menu option, but again tiny. I counted it as the fruit (0 points) and 1/2 cup plain regular-fat yogurt (3 points).
There’s no reason a 10-point meal should leave one hungry. But this one did.
Topping it off, a friend asked for a skim milk latte. Answer: we don’t have it. The requested dinner menu never arrived, so no telling whether it’s any better later in the day.
About the only high point was the iced tea, which came with a nice carafe for multiple refills.
Later on, there will be some nitpicking about the menu. But let’s just start with the most important thing: Thanks to the in-theater dining trend, finally there is something besides movie popcorn, candy and liquid-cheese nachos to eat at the theater. For someone trying to eat healthy, it’s an improvement.
Both have menus that seem right off the Sysco truck, but that’s to be expected. They just need to have enough choices to satisfy most people without a lot of food waste or the need for high-end chefs to cook it.
I had the grilled chicken quinoa, which clocked in at 720 calories. It was probably a cup-and-a-half of quinoa (9 points on the new Weight Watchers system), 3 ounces of grilled chicken (2 points), a quarter-cup slivered almonds (5 points), a quarter cup of feta cheese (4 points) and 3-4 tablespoons dressing (4-6 points). The asparagus and tomato amounted to 0 points, although one suspects there was some oil used in the roasting of the asparagus.
“Crispy” brussels sprouts
All in all, it was a pretty expensive entree, points-wise. It was small enough that I found myself ordering the crispy brussels sprouts, which were listed at 230 calories. The 1 1/2 cups of brussels sprouts themselves would have been about 57 calories, so the rest of the calories came from being stuck in a deep fryer.
Adding that was a mistake. As it was when I ordered it last night again at CineBistro. They are a favorite vegetable, but this whole trend of throwing them in a deep fryer doesn’t do them any favors.
CineBistro’s menu is more varied and has greater ambitions: Moroccan lamb chop and fig-and-brie flatbread, for instance. That’s not necessarily a good thing. The Restaurant Dieter’s spouse has a rule of thumb: If you suspect that the kitchen’s ambitions exceed the likely skill, order the hamburger.
He did just that, and I ordered the grilled chicken BLT, no B with a Caesar salad on the side instead of the fries. I left the bun and ate only the chicken and the Swiss cheese and smear of guacamole that came on it. The salad was pretty lightly dressed, so I ate that too, leaving aside the huge, fried cracker of parmesan that came on top.
Sometimes, a guy’s got to eat. Choosing carefully based on your desires or diet isn’t practical. So you wind up with what’s close by — in this case,close by the Tara Cinema in Atlanta.
So we found ourselves at Rain, which bills itself as a “Thai and sushi bar.” The menu spanned at least 6 pages, all with photos, with enough decent choices. The nutritional bargain for me was the lemongrass soup. Hunting around on the web, I found what I think is the basic nutritional information. I counted it as 4 Weight Watchers points.
The big, hulking former Sears, Roebuck & Co. building on Ponce de Leon has become Ponce City Market. What sat nearly vacant for many years is a collection of pricey condos, pricey shops and upscale restaurants.
The restaurants include several by well-known Atlanta restauranteurs plus Brezza Cecina from noted chef Jonathan Waxman. The whole market is a buzzy new space in Atlanta, and as the largest restaurant, Brezza Cecina is the buzziest. Even on the Friday before Christmas, it was wall-to-wall young professionals.
Most were too svelte to care about watching caloric intake, but that is The Restaurant Dieter’s lot. And Brezza Cecina accommodated nicely. From the single-page menu, my non-dieting friend got a huge serving of butternut squash risotto that would kill any diet.
I , too, left satisfied, thanks to some luck and guidance from a great server. He recommended the kale salad lightly dressed, which was fine. But the best bet was the verdure salad, full of roasted vegetables in a light dressing. I got the remains of my husband’s and shared with a friend. We ended up ordering a second.
Then the roast chicken was another good recommendation.
Halibut with clams, butter beans and a fennel foam
The Restaurant Dieter has no earthly clue how many Weight Watcher points to assess for a recent five-course tasting menu at Bacchanalia, nor does he care. This is a restaurant and a menu that can be endorsed for dieters without hesitation.
Among the 32 items from which one selects five, there was at least one good choice for each course.
The portions were so modest that even if decadent, the damage wouldn’t be too bad.
Nobody blinked when I brought in my own Fresca because Diet Coke has so much caffeine. The staff whisked it out of sight and refilled my glass until the can was empty, just as if I’d brought in a very special bottle of wine from home.
At $85 for five courses, it was an extremely well priced tasting menu.
Field peas, peanuts, charred tomato and pepper salad
For a recent trip to Atlanta’s darling of farm-to-table dining, Miller Union, there were low expectations. The restaurant’s raison d’etre is a close partnership with local farmers and growers. By definition, that means no two-page menu with lots of choices. The kitchen uses what is locally available and cooks what it thinks will sell. The menu is limited and changes often.
But previous visits left The Restaurant Dieter unable to bestow an award for those of us counting our Weight Watchers points.
This time, however, there was a pleasant surprise: the menu held two stand-out dishes that were incredibly fresh, faithful to the farm-to-table movement and relatively low in calories and fat.
A salad of crunchy peanuts and al dente field peas was dressed with a light vinaigrette and accented with charred tomato and peppers and a dollop of lemon ricotta on the bottom. Nothing in the dish masked the flavor of those peas, which were indeed fresh.
The selected entree was a low-country boil of shrimp, andouille sausage, tiny new potatoes and peppers. The method of cooking, of course, adds no fat to the dish, save for what’s in the sausage so it was easy to count. Four points for about 5 ounces of shrimp; 2 for a piece of corn on the cob; 2 for 3/4 cup of potatoes; and 7 for about 3 ounces of sausage.
A low country boil, carelessly done, can be a big ugly mash: It’s easy to wind up with lots of the ingredients overcooked — rubbery shrimp, limp corn and masticated potatoes. Not this time. These ingredients may have been cooked together, but a good guess is that they were added sequentially.
Both items are on the current online menu, but the website cautions: “Our online is updated weekly so may differ from the menu in the restaurant.” In other words, if you’re dieting and thinking of going, better to call ahead.
The first thing to know about Southern Art is that the chef, Art Smith, was Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef — not during her skinny phase. (That for the record was Rosie Daley, who seems to have disappeared.) The second is that Smith was a gay male Paula Deen on Bravo TV’s Top Chef Masters — all the butter but none of the antebellum baggage that killed her career. The third is that Smith was diagnosed with diabetes before his 50th birthday, lost 100 pounds, now eats six meals a day and runs marathons.
Which brings us back to Southern Art in Atlanta’s Intercontinental Hotel in Buckhead. Can he possibly eat at his own restaurant when visiting?
The Restaurant Dieter says yes — with reservations. It takes a lot of willpower and a willingness to plan accordingly.
The willpower is required the minute the server brings to table a plate of homey drop biscuits with maple butter and a small pot of pickles. The pickles — cuke, carrot and okra — are salty, vinegary and sweet. I ate the first pot pretty much myself. The biscuits and butter were left for dining companions.
Some willpower also came in handy when dining companions ordered a chef’s assortment from the ham bar. You read that right. Southern Art stocks artisanal pork products from all over the United States and assembles them into mouth-watering charcuterie plates. A dieter who is susceptible to overeating after something salty has to avoid this. There’s no middle ground.
The menu overall is gloriously southern in the way that Decatur’s Watershed was before it moved uptown to Buckhead in Atlanta. The fried chicken, for example, is brined, moist and juicy on the inside, cracking crisp on the outside and it’s on the menu every night. I know because on a non-diet night, I’ve had it. Needless to say, that evening never made The Restaurant Dieter.
This one was different. I had 29 of my daily 38 Weight Watcher points yet to use by the time we sat down, and I spent them accordingly to save up for the encore.
And all of this was possible because the serving staff seemed to understand — from the chef himself perhaps? — that dieters need to ask for and get compromises without a fuss. Bravo.
A salad of crisp romaine, clementine, avocado and feta and Green Goddess dressing came as requested — feta and dressing on the side. A companion who wanted the fried chicken, but the green tomato chow chow from the catfish entree got a “no problem” from the server. My filet (I ate only half) came with the blue cheese butter on the side and went unused; it had flavor enough. Ditto for a companion who ordered the sirloin and wanted no brown butter shallot vinaigrette.
And when you’ve been that good, why not take a forkful of your spouse’s sinfully good dish: braised pork cheeks atop a white cheddar johnnycake with mustard creamed leeks and fried parsnips. This entree is typical of the fare; fattening southern in all its glory.
By the end of my entree, I’d only consumed 18 of the 29 Weight Watcher points. Time for the encore mentioned earlier.
There’s no point in going to Southern Art if you’re not going to order cake. Not cake in the sense of modern restaurants — where there’s a maybe a chocolate gush something or a funny shaped medallion one might otherwise mistake for — oh, maybe a modern automobile key.
No, I’m talking cake. Real cake. Big, high, rich frosted slices of the kind that might have been carved off a footed platter at a Southern Baptist church supper. This is the cake no modern, high-end restaurant seems to serve. Pastry chefs have become artistes.
Without a doubt, Southern Art offers the best red velvet cake one is likely to find anywhere. The 12 layer tower alternates thin layers of moist-crumb cake with incredibly rich, but not over sweet, cream cheese frosting. Somewhere there is a church lady put to shame by Art Smith.
I assessed myself 8 Weight Watcher points for half of that cake and entered Southern food heaven. Come on down and join me sometime, y’all.