Healthy Restaurant Eating

By The Restaurant Dieter

Category: Atlanta (page 3 of 4)

When at the Jewish deli, indulge

My excuse: Living in Atlanta, I don’t get to real Jewish delis very often, and I love these hammentashen poppyseed cookies.

I admit I had to ask the clerk at the Bagel Palace Deli & Bakery to spell the name so i could write this post.

I probably more aware of Jewish culture than many non-Jews. I studied Holocaust literature and even stumbled into pledging the traditionally Jewish Sigma Alpha Mu in college.

From my fraternity brothers, I learned to swear in Yiddish, appreciate the Jewish girls in the little sisters auxiliary (before I owned up to my preference for men) and bake bread by making challah. For Jews and Italians, it’s all about the family and food. Even when it’s somewhat warped.

“What do you mean we’re dysfunctional? Eat something! You’ll feel better!”

I swear: If you eliminated that little disagreement over Jesus Christ, Jews and Italians would be one culture.

L’chiam!

Review: When competent seafood is all you need, go to Oceanaire

Baked Alaska

Nothing about The Oceanaire Seafood Room in Atlanta will knock your socks off. It’s not inventive, it’s not especially creative and god knows, it’s certainly not modern.

When you’re sitting in a dining room tricked up to make you feel like you’re eating on the Queen Mary, and dessert includes baked Alaska, only a patron as mad as old King George III would expect nouvelle cuisine, farm-to-table or molecular gastronomy.

Seafood salad

No, this is a safe and predictable “expense account” kind of fish joint, with prices to match, and what’s on the menu here is seafood, fresh and executed well. After weighing in 3 pounds lighter than a week ago at Weight Watchers, The Restaurant Dieter and some pals had good more reason to choose safe and stay the course.

While we ate at the Atlanta location, this small of 12 chain has restaurants in Washington D.C., Dallas, Denver and Houston, Boston, Miami and Minneapolis. Didn’t I say this was an “expense account” kind of places with prices to match? ($32.95 for about 6-8 ounces of Florida Grouper, served with absolutely nothing. All other accompaniments a la carte.)

For the non-dieter, the Oceanaire menu offers all manner of preparations that can send you home having doffed a 3,000-calorie-plus meal. You can get fish fried, with drawn butter and Louied. You can get something turf-y with rich crab Oscar on top. You can get vegetables sauteed or covered in Hollandaise sauce. And then there’s the aforementioned baked Alaska.

Skip the bread in favor of the relish dish

But there are also enough signals that the dieter will not only be accommodated, but celebrated. That sense starts with the dish of crudites that arrive at the table at the moment a basket of the crusty bread does. Carrot sticks, cherry peppers, olives, cucumber slices sit atop a cold bed of ice. How often do you see that? It’s like a big welcome sign.

Thanks to that gesture of thoughtfulness, The Restaurant Dieter managed to pass up the bread. And when his companions appetizers “for the table” arrived, he similarly bypassed the fried calamari in favor of his own seafood chopped salad. It consisted of lettuce, tomatoes, red onion, kalamata olives, capers, hard-cooked egg, cold boiled shrimp and crab and feta cheese. The kitchen was happy to put the feta and vinaigrette on the side.

Rather than use the only spoon at the table — a large one that came with the calamari — I waited for a server to bring another and ladled on two ice tea spoonfuls of dressing and about an ounce of feta. With all the other chopped ingredients oozing their own juices, it was plenty — even on such a large salad.

The entree was a grilled grouper that arrived without having been bathed in the lemon butter at my request. It also was a large meaty portion. For a side, I had the steamed asparagus with the Hollandaise, which already comes on the side and was politely ignored. The spears were big and fat. I ate them with my fingers, just like my companions ate their Parmesan and truffle oil French fries.

And for dessert, my companions ordered the baked Alaska for two, which really served four. Once the fire died down, a spoonful was enough to send me home safe, sound and satisfied. When you’re trying to watch your weight, sometimes that’s enough.

Florida grouper

Asparagus

Review: Cobb salad, but hold the bacon, at Tap in Atlanta

Boy I wish the dressing were thinner and easier to spread. I could use less. But it does look good. Leaving off the bacon was a good idea.

Review: At Atmosphere in Atlanta, the gays can eat French and not get fat

Endive salad, deconstructed

There’s this myth that some groups don’t get fat. It surfaced in Mireille Guiliano’s 2004 “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” which became a New York Times bestseller, and more recently, “Gay Men Don’t Get Fat” in January 2012. The latter is by the elfin Simon Doonan, a former Barney’s window dresser, who lives in New York with his equally elfin husband, the potter and home fashion retailer, Jonathan Adler.

Buenos Aires, 2005
Buenos Aires, 2005

(As an aside, I’d like to report that the famously thin people of Buenos Aires really aren’t. Witness these pictures taken on my 2005 vacation, specifically to prove the guidebooks wrong.)

Anyway, a recent Saturday restaurant outing seemed destined to throw down the gauntlet on those myths. The Restaurant Dieter, his husband and two other couples had reservations at Atmosphere in Atlanta’s Midtown neighborhood. The restaurant is French. The staff and quite a number of the guests speak with impossibly charming accents. The menu is mother-sauced within an inch of its life.

Our sextet, on the other hand, were all gay men of a certain age. None of us is as thin as Doonan & Adler. On the other hand, none of us is as….robust as the average suburban husband sitting down for a beer and football on a typical weekend. (As this review embraces stereotypes, why not add that The Restaurant Dieter’s Spouse checked his Blackberry frequently throughout dinner for the score of the Detroit Lions game?) We were seated in the back room, right next to another group of gay men of a certain age. Did I miss the hostess tell our party: “Welcome to Atmosphere. Your table in the fat gay room is ready.”

The thin gays, some of them speaking French, were up front at the bar. On second thought, they might not have been gay at all. Anyone who’s played the game, “Gay or European?” knows that. (For the clueless, Google the video from Broadway’s “Legally Blond.”)

As Midtown is the epicenter of gay Atlanta, this restaurant knows we’d all like to be as elfin as Doonan & Adler. So when asked, “What on the menu is light and low fat?” the server — himself thin and either gay or European, or both — didn’t miss a beat. He identified a pan roasted trout amandine and said it could be prepared without added fat.

He also didn’t blink when I asked that a salad of Belgian endive, apple, walnuts and Roquefort cheese in a red wine vinaigrette come to the table completely deconstructed. This allowed me to limit the fattening parts — the cheese, dressing and nuts — to about a tablespoon each, which didn’t harm the combination in the least.

The trout picked up a slight sheen in the pan, probably from a little fat used to toast the slivered almonds. It was well-cooked, flaky but not dry, and tasted just fine with the almonds scraped off to the side. The added fat — olive oil and capers — came in a small portion cup that I left untouched. The fish came with haricot vert, baby carrots and fingerling potatoes, all prepared with minimal to no fat.

I left the restaurant feeling incredibly virtuous, especially because I didn’t get dessert. Others went for the profiterolles, but as this was a gaggle of gay guys, of course they shared.

Review: Copeland’s of New Orleans, Atlanta

Lowfat but boring

A recent visit to Copeland’s of New Orleans suggests it might be time to rethink this blog’s subtitle. Maybe it should be: “Dieting and eating out shouldn’t be so boring.”

Copeland’s is like a lot of restaurants. Stripped of their normal tools to satisfy diners — fat, salt and sugar — many restaurants have little appetizing to offer. So a dieter can technically eat there, but leave so unsatisfied that a bad food binge is only a fast food drive-thru away.

With three metro-Atlanta locations, Copeland’s is a casual theme dinner house with a Cajun-Creole bent but something for everybody. Besides crawfish etouffee, the menu offers Buffalo this, Thai shrimp that, Caesar whatever and chicken parm. It leaves no pedestrian food trend untouched.

Such a menu pushes an experienced dieter immediately to the salads. With dressing on the side, perhaps somehow we’ll survive.

Instead, the server recommended the fresh fish of the day, which in this case turned out to be a swordfish. It came, grilled or blackened, with two sides.

“Can I get that grilled with little to no oil or fat? With steamed broccoli and red beans and rice.”

“Red beans and rice? That’s not low fat,” the server corrected. Give her credit for honesty.

“OK, make it a green salad. Dressing on the side.”

Everything came as ordered. The thoughtful server even brought extra lemon wedges. A victory for The Restaurant Dieter, right?

Welcome to the law of unintended consequences. Everything was so bland and tasteless, so I stopped by a CVS and got a bag of peanut butter pretzels on the way home.

Review: Harbour Bar & Fish House, Decatur, GA

Ahoy matey! It’s the Thai salad

On the website, the restaurant bills itself as “Decatur’s Finest Fish House.” This is an odd slogan. We are talking Decatur, Georgia, right? Next to Atlanta smack dab in the middle of the state? As land-locked as it gets? Where the only nearby body of water is man-made Lake Lanier?

With decor in weather-washed gray and nautical accents suggesting Maine, Harbour Bar & Fish House makes no locavore claims. Wonderful shrimp may be only hours away at the Georgia coast, but the shrimp could be sourced from anywhere as far as the marketing is concerned.
Its owners want to transport you to Maine, and we were. Sort of. The Restaurant Dieter and his spouse have discovered an excellent new dining option only blocks from the house. We’ll be back. It is Decatur’s finest fish house — and not only because it may be Decatur’s ONLY fish house.
There are abundant fish preparations, of both the low fat and high fat variety. The fried platters and chowders and bisques are balanced by peel-and-eat shrimp, main dish salads and boils based on shellfish, sausage, potatoes and corn. The Restaurant Dieter’s spouse ordered a shrimp boil. It came with hushpuppies, but the server was only too happy to substitute steamed vegetables.
The Restaurant Dieter started with a half-pound of steamed shrimp. They arrived in a stainless steel steamer basket on a bed of seaweed, with a pungent cocktail sauce. The shrimp were a little on the small side, probably in the 21-30 per pound category, but what do you want for 10 bucks? When one is dieting and trying to focus on protein, it’s hard to argue with 28 calories and 0 grams of fat per ounce.
The main-dish Thai salad wasn’t exactly geographically consistent with the theme, but it was a plate of fresh, crunchy vegetables with two skewers of small shrimp on top. The shrimp were grilled with little to no fat and had a pleasantly smoky flavor. 
It came with — at my request — the dressings on the side. The low fat soy glaze gave just enough flavor. The curry dressing — curry? — was cast aside.
One could go on about the incongruities at “Decatur’s Finest Fish House,” but that would be missing the point entirely. Blocks from the house, there’s finally a place to stop in for, or take out, a dinner that won’t wreck a diet. I’m perfectly willing to smile and put on my best “ahoy, matey” if it’ll keep this new port open for business.

Review: Goin’ Coastal, Atlanta, Ga.

Swordfish with vegetables, tomatoes and herbs

Going to a fish restaurant is often a good bet for a dieter.

Goin’ Coastal, a new restaurant in Atlanta’s Virginia-Highland neighborhood, is an even better bet. Restaurants that set out to accommodate dieters have the opportunity to exceed expectations. This unpretentious little “sustainable seafood joint” (as it calls itself) did exactly that.

Eating fish at this restaurant need not be penance for your non-dieting friends. They can order the fish-and-chips with hush puppies, coleslaw and buttered corn on the cob. But for you, there are abundant choices.

From the fresh catch board, one of the choices is an excellent baked preparation with vegetables, a lot of fresh basil and a lightly oiled marinara sauce. On the meaty swordfish, it was flavorful and healthy. It came with a choice of sides, which on that day included steamed broccoli.

But the kitchen really outdid itself when The Restaurant Dieter ordered poorly. As a starter, the half-pound of peel-and-eat shrimp seemed perfect: cold, meaty with a horseradish-infused cocktail sauce.  But what arrived were shrimp doused in a oil-based marinade before being grilled. It was a high-fat dish, and I’d neglected to ask how it was prepared.

When the server realized this was not what I expected, she snapped it up. “Let me see if the kitchen will do this another way.”

Ten minutes later, the shrimp arrived, boiled and sitting atop a bed of ice. That’s the kind of service that keeps dieters coming back.

Review: Don’t by fooled by the gourmet burger hype — 5 Napkin, Flip and Yeah! are still a ‘no’ for most Atlanta dieters

Salad and chicken sandwich on gluten free bun at Yeah! Burger

UPDATE: Since this review was published, 5 Napkin Burger has closed. One too many gourmet burger spots in Atlanta, apparently.

For a dieter, this is not a trend to be cheered.

Like New York perhaps five years ago, it can now be safely said that Atlanta is overrun by gourmet burger joints. The phenomenon crossed from trend to outright saturation when a national chain recently opened in the epicenter of Atlanta’s gay neighborhood.

A 5 Napkin Burger now sits at 10th and Piedmont in Midtown, surrounded by the gay bookstore, a men’s day spa, one of the most popular gay bars in town, a cool coffee shop and a popular breakfast joint that’s a walkable distance for the nearby condo dwellers who’ve been out late. The Atlanta location follows the chain’s colonization of New York (with three locations), Boston’s Back Bay and Miami’s South Beach.

And those restaurants were borrowing a page from culinary stars such as Daniel Bouloud, the French chef who introduced the world’s most expensive hamburger at his DB Bistro Moderne in New York in 2001.  The $27 burger (now $32) comes stuffed with foie gras, truffles and braised short ribs. We stumbled into the place after the theater not long after and had our burgers with airy pomme soufflés. By the wee hours of the morning, that decadent burger was a raging heartburn.

Flip Burger’s Richard Blais

5 Napkin’s recent opening merely cements the trend, but in Atlanta one would have to date the beginning to celebrity chef’s Richard BlaisFlip Burger boutique in December 2008.

The Bravo Top chef contestant (loser in one season; winner in another) introduced concoctions like “grass fed beef, farm lettuce, heirloom tomato, grilled vidalia onion, chow chow, local cheese and Coca-Cola ketchup.” A few months into the place’s opening, the wait was an hour or more. Our companion asked the hostess, “How much do I have to give you to get a table?” and slipped her twenty bucks. (Blais has now turned his attention to hot dogs with HD1 in Atlanta’s Virginia-Highland neighborhood.)

Others certainly noticed his success with burgers. Atlanta has added Yeah! Burger from chef Shaun Doty, with locations in Midtown and Virginia-Highland; Farm Burger with locations in Decatur and Buckhead; and Grindhouse Killer Burgers in Midtown and downtown.

The list of adjectives applied to the beef at these restaurants is extensive. Natural, organic, grass-fed, certified humane,  black diamond, 100 percent certified angus, dry-aged and even carbon-neutral. Just reading the menu can leave one exhausted, especially considering that it’s still a hamburger and no better nutritionally than a quarter pounder at McDonald’s.

Needless to say, with such highfalutin burgers as the stars, all of these restaurants also specialize in French fries and their kin, sometimes (as at Flip Burger) fried in duck fat. At Yeah! Burger recently, a companion was aghast to receive fried sweet potato wedges dusted with both salt AND sugar. There is no warning on the menu — only a boast of their being gluten free — so she sent them back.
Though a dieter may not cheer this burger trend, he or she is unlikely to dodge it. Friends and companions will certainly want to go, and they will insist that there’s something on the menu for you as well. The restaurants have all vaguely heard of dieters, and some are better than others at offering accommodations. Typically these are a turkey burger, a chicken breast sandwich, a veggie burger, a salad.
5 Napkin probably offers the most. The menu is extensive, with five entree salads and an ahi tuna burger — even some sushi. None of those items, of course, are dieter friendly without some modification. One has to insist on the creamy chipolte or creamy honey-lime vinaigrette on the side. The ahi tuna has to be ordered without the tempura fried onions and with the wasabi mayo on the side.
The menu at Yeah! Burger — exclamation point theirs, by the way — offers three salads. One is that most classic of non-diet salads: the Caesar. A pretty typical nutritional tally is 167 calories and 13 grams of fat, with only 1.38 grams of fiber. Another is a Cobb salad, which becomes diet friendly only if one changes the dressing and eliminates the bacon, blue cheese. The avocado and egg certainly add fat, but at least it’s the good kind.
Yeah! Burger’s simple greens salad is decently fresh. To the usual ingredients, the kitchen adds crunchy radishes and sunflower sprouts. With the herb-lemon vinaigrette or the buttermilk dressing on the side and carefully controlled, a dieter can manage. Likewise with the lone salad on the menu at Farm Burger. Drawing from what’s available locally, it often features radishes or other vegetables. The $3 version is too small; I find it necessary to get the $7 large. It is served with — on the side — a choice of dressings, a farm goddess dressing and a grainy mustard vinaigrette. The latter is freshly made on site.
Most misleading on these menus is the poultry offering. Any experienced dieter knows there’s a considerable difference between a turkey burger made with meat from the whole bird and one made with pure, white, breast meat. Four ounces of ground turkey is about 193 calories and 11 grams of fat; the same amount of ground breast meat is about 120 calories and 1.5 grams of fat.

Routinely, servers and counter staff at these restaurants cannot seem to answer the question, “Is it all white meat or not?” The best you’ll get is a mumble about the meat’s being organic.

Assume you’re getting the meat from the whole bird, because breast meat does dry out when cooked. That leaves the turkey burger marginally better than just throwing in the towel and getting beef. Ground round (15 percent fat) clocks at 204 calories and 12 grams of fat.

On our recent visit to Yeah! Burger, I opted for the chicken breast sandwich on the gluten free ($1.25 extra) bun. It had clearly been marinated in something, but wasn’t overly shiny. For those tracking calories, it probably amounts to the meat plus a couple teaspoons to a tablespoon of any fat.
The menus won’t disclose it, but very often the buns are slathered with butter and toasted. The dieter is going to have to ask and request the butter be left off. It may still arrive with a bit of fat, owing to the fat that’s just sitting on the grill from previously toasted buns.
Altogether, this is another food trend that masks the dietary horrors of fast food with a veneer of gourmet, organic, grass-fed, farm-to-table and locally sourced. And some of it tastes quite good.
But don’t let all those adjectives fool you. It might as well be the McDonald’s drive-thru.

Review: Cakes & Ale, Decatur, GA

Dressing and feta on the side? Nope.

This is no restaurant for a dieter.

True to form, a recent meal at Cakes & Ale’s new home on Decatur’s town square reconfirmed this. On previous visits,  the kitchen always seemed to choose fat-laden preparations. There might be vegetables on the menu, but they were inevitably sauteed.

Different this time was the sheer obstinacy of this pro-fat position. It was an unpleasant departure from a recent meal at Michael Mina at The Bellagio in Las Vegas. There the kitchen was only too happy to modify dishes to accommodate the dieter.

At Cakes & Ale, the kitchen sent out a server, poorly equipped to do her job well. Though she tried.

The meal started with the usual question: “What is low-fat on this menu?” The server did her best, but she had little to work with. She pointed out the chicken entree (oiled and roasted with skin on), an appetizer of oysters (!) and three fish entrees, none of which used butter, she said. Olive oil, presumably, has ceased being a fat.

Feeling pretty confident about the starters at least, I asked for dressing and feta cheese on the side for a simple, Greek-style salad.

“The chef won’t do that,” she said.

“Then what exactly will the chef do where I can have the dressing on the side?” I asked, with an obvious edge.

Perhaps fearing an eruption, she hurried back to the kitchen to find out. She said that the dressing could be on-the-side for all except the baby eggplant, which were prepared in advance.

Leaving aside the dressing issue for a moment, what arrived was — for $9 — an embarrassment. (Regular readers know I almost never complain about the tab, unless the price-to-value ratio is way out of whack. It was. Somebody’s apparently got to pay for the new digs, and that somebody is us.)

The salad consisted of two or three halved cherry tomatoes, three leaves of leaf lettuce, about two inches from a medium cucumber, a couple small pickled eggplant and an ounce or so of feta cheese.

The lettuce leaves were admirably dry, and there was a portion cup of dressing on the side. But the cucumber and tomatoes had been dressed, and the feta cheese was mixed in as well.

What can we conclude? That nowhere in the kitchen was there a cucumber or tomato that had yet to be dressed? I guess so.

Fish: Not much fat, not much flavor

Trying hard to please, the server said she’d gotten the kitchen to go light on the oil for my entree, a swordfish steak roasted with peppers, onions, artichokes, tomatoes and field peas. The swordfish was nicely cooked, tender and juicy. The field peas were a nice touch, cooked al dente.

What the dish lacked was flavor — either from the fish itself or from any of the other ingredients. Fat lends flavor to food, but the best of chefs don’t use it as a crutch, as seems the case here. They compensate by using plentiful fresh herbs, unusual ingredients or preparations that concentrate the flavors of common ingredients.

These techniques take time and these ingredients are expensive, so one might argue that it’s unfair to compare a humble neighborhood bistro in Decatur, GA, with one of the nation’s top restaurants.

But this was a $27 entree, not a $15 menu item at Red Lobster.

Come to think of it, I’ve had a better fish entree at Red Lobster.

Review: El Pollo Loco, Atlanta

It’s so easy to catch a fast food restaurant at the worst possible moment. The floor has a spill. Several of the tables are littered with trays and discarded food. The ice tea dispenser is empty. They run out of the item you order — after you pay the tab. They’re understaffed, but the folks behind the counter seem to be re-enacting “Night of the Living Dead.” A line is forming, no food comes up from the kitchen promptly and the manager, shirt partially untucked, is fiddling with the screen as if launching the last space shuttle.

Welcome to El Pollo Loco, a restaurant chain that is at least trying to make a difference when it comes to eating out healthy. Unfortunately, it  wasn’t just the chicken that was crazy; this patron was as well.
The El Pollo bowl
Lunch at the restaurant seemed like a good idea, given that El Pollo Loco was among the 19 chains last week that agreed to participate in a new child nutritional program touted by the National Restaurant Association. Called “Kids Live Well,” it aims to brand restaurants and items with a “seal of approval” that hope to make it easier to chose healthy food.
The visit, unfortunately, demonstrated the biggest problem with the program thus far: The 19 chains have the program at 15,000 locations nationwide. The El Pollo Loco I chose on Buford Highway in Atlanta is not among the participating restaurants. So the program’s happy logo was nowhere to be found.
But El Pollo got the nod anyway. It was 2p.m., and I was crazy hungry. Plus, the chain also participates in other programs with Healthy Dining, the consulting company involved in the NRA initiative. The nutritional information posted just inside the door featured many items with Healthy Dining’s approval.
I decided to get the chicken tortilla soup, minus the tortilla strips, and the Original Pollo Bowl. The soup clocked in at 140 calories, 5 grams of fat and 840 mg of sodium. Because it never arrived, I saved those calories easily enough.
The  Pollo Bowl was listed at 610 calories, 10 grams fat, and 1,750 mg of sodium (way too much), although I asked the kitchen to skip the cheese and rice in the bowl. That might have been a mistake because by the time I waited for my refund on the soup, the bowl was a lukewarm soupy mixture of beans, onions, pico de gallo and chicken chunks, garnished with chopped cilantro. Blah.
Barbecue black beans and steamed vegetables
Still feeling hungry, I went back for a side of fresh vegetables and the barbecue black beans. The former didn’t exactly have the texture of great veggies, just pulled from the steamer. But they did have some texture and, at a fast food restaurant, something of a miracle. It’s hard to knock them.
The black beans were 200 calories, 3 grams fat and 520 of sodium. The typically rich, earthly flavor of black beans was buried beneath a blanket of sickly sweet barbecue sauce. It seemed more like the kind of sugary baked beans one brings to the church picnic. No wonder. With 16 grams of sugar, that half-cup of black beans had more sugar than the 14 grams in an Oreo cookie.
It’s tempting to grade on good intentions — a fast food chain with steamed vegetables deserves some credit. But between the food, the experience and the sodium content, one can’t honestly declare this visit to El Pollo Loco a winner.
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