Healthy Restaurant Eating

By The Restaurant Dieter

Category: Binges (page 2 of 2)

NRA show report: A dieter’s fear and loathing around every corner

CHICAGO — Pizza lurked around every corner among the 1,800 exhibits, and it probably wasn’t because The National Restaurant Association’s annual trade show chose Chicago’s cavernous McCormick Place. It must be a byproduct of the fact that the salty, fatty, carb-y, cheezy is a perfect restaurant food. Easy to cook, little-to-no waste and a bang-up profit margin.

You may now ask: What in the world was a guy trying to diet doing in a place like this? Research, of course. Now I’m in my hotel room researching something else: how fast does the generic Walgreens Famotidine Tablets acid reducer work?

What I’d really like to know is how another guy on a diet — vegan, if I’m not mistaken — wound up here? President Bill Clinton gave the keynote address entitled, “Embracing Our Common Humanity.” The program said The William J. Clinton Foundation “is working to combat the alarming rise in childhood obesity” through something called “the Alliance for a Healthier Generation.” I’m crestfallen my plane arrived too late to catch his speech. Given that it was likely just down the hall from all this pizza…well, let’s just say it was bound to be interesting.

This might come off as too flippant, but vegan Bill Clinton speaking here about nutrition is kind of like Sarah Brady speaking at that other NRA convention.

Review: Moro’s of Allen Park, Mich.

This bowl of fruit just arrived, gratis

Another visit home to care for Mom, another opportunity to stuff my face until it hurts.

Although visits home are typically when the worst comes out, the most recent trip to suburban Detroit yielded a surprise worth mentioning.

Mom and I went to Moro’s. The restaurant has a long history in the suburbs south of Detroit. My generation took dates there before a big school dance like the prom.

It’s tiny, dark and cozy, with white linen tablecloths and waiters in tuxedos, even on a Tuesday night. The waiters mix the salad at your table.

The menu is not, in itself, diet friendly. It’s heavy on classic red-sauce Italian dishes like veal parmesan, chicken cacciatore and fettuccine Alfredo, even though there are a few dishes like broiled cod.

I was in full, face-stuff mode and went for the cannelloni. I hadn’t had it in years. It was meaty, both inside the pasta shells and from the thick bolognese. Mom had veal picante. The Greek salad we ordered was drenched in olive oil by an artistic swing of the server’s arm, but I didn’t have the heart to stop his show.

But what surprised and delighted us: at the end of the meal, a bowl of fresh fruit and nuts arrives, courtesy of the house. Perhaps it costs them a few dessert orders. More likely, it inspires gratitude from folks like The Restaurant Dieter and the dessert eaters still pass it by for the cherries jubilee.

Way to go Moro’s.

Hudson’s Maurice Salad is full of great memories

Hudson’s (Now Macy’s) Maurice Salad

After a week at home eating whole grains, fruits and vegetables and lean proteins, my mom and I recently sat down to a Maurice Salad and memories of growing up in better times for Detroit.

This is a main dish salad that in no way can be called light. Be forewarned: This will not be a column about how to eat healthy at restaurants.

A family visit simply isn’t a good time to diet. You dump your suitcase at the door and pick up the baggage that you’ve been carrying since birth. In The Restaurant Dieter’s case, that means the plus-sized poundage and the eating habits that lead to it.
I’ve attempted to fight this in the past, mostly unsuccessfully. Then guilt sets in and propels me to the cookie jar for another biscotti. In the last couple of years, I’ve had more luck making peace with the knowledge that I’ll stumble and that I’ll return to the virtuous path when the visit is over.
My visit to Detroit is a monthly effort to give my sister, who cares for my mom, a break. Mom has made a good recovery from her stroke 13 years ago. But the stroke’s effects combined with general aging require the presence of another adult. She is no longer the fireball who kept all the trains running on time, and that alone can be enough reason for emotional eating. But going out to dinner or lunch is  something we can do together and gets Mom out of the house.
So we found ourselves at Macy’s at the Southfield Mall in Taylor, Mich. We went in search of this famed Hudson’s Maurice Salad. To this day, I’ve never been to another restaurant that serves this salad. A recipe for the dressing is pretty common on the Internet, though it’s unclear if it was ever officially sanctioned by the store. I’ve had reasonable success provided I substitute two mashed egg yorks for the hard-cooked egg that’s called for.

By now, the native Detroiters have been waiting for me to mention that this salad is not a Macy’s phenomenon at all. It has its roots in the heyday of Detroit’s most prominent retailer, J.L. Hudson, which was acquired first by the Marshall Field chain and later Macy’s. In Detroit’s heyday, J.L. Hudson’s downtown Detroit was the store by which all others were judged, where the ladies lunched and where the Maurice Salad was born. Before suburbanites gave up on Detroit, Mom took me on the bus downtown to shop and get herself a Maurice Salad. The whole store was magical, especially at Christmas. Detroit unsuccessfully fought off, then mourned, the demise of this landmark.

Presented on a platter, Maurice Salad is a fairly common composition of julienned head lettuce, ham, turkey, swiss cheese and pickle. What distinguished the Maurice from an ordinary chef salad was the rich, yellow-green, eggy and lemony dressing.

The damage from a single serving of Maurice Salad is listed at one website at 479 calories with 27 grams of fat, but that still seems undercounted given the size of the portion and the fact that I nearly licked the plate clean. The two portion cups of dressing alone would yield 200 calories and 20 grams of fat if counted as a standard mayonnaise.

And then, because Mom has developed quite a sweet tooth, we had to go for Stroh’s Ice Cream, another institution from Detroit’s heyday. The ice cream line was added by the Stroh Brewery Co. in the 1920s when Prohibition rendered its beer business illegal. It wound up being profitable enough that the company kept it after Prohibition ended.

Lots of real chips

Nowhere will you find a chocolate chip with so many chocolate chips. And these are not the odd-sized little drips and shavings that are typical in ice creams. These are real, plump bittersweet chips. One is ensured a chocolate crunch with each creamy bite.

This past weekend wasn’t a diet adventure at all. But it was a lovely walk down memory lane with Mom. The whole grains will always be there.

Review: Voodoo Doughnuts, Portland, Ore.



The carnage from Voodoo Doughnuts

Being a food tourist is a dangerous business. It inevitably leads to poor judgment. That’s how one winds up eating a thousand calorie slice of pizza in Chicago, or a greasy cone of fish and chips in London, or a Philly cheesesteak in…Philly.

That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.

Why else would a writer/blogger called The Restaurant Dieter wind up at the most talked about Portland food establishment?  Voodoo Doughnuts. This joint features a doughnut topped with maple frosting and two slices of bacon.

There is no hope of diet here, unless you count that it has vegan offerings. But diet as in low fat, low sugar? Hardly. That you can special order a coffin full of Voodoo’s specialities seems apt.

Somewhere out there are Voodoo’s victims, including a few folks in line that were wearing “early stroke,” “early heart attack” signs as surely as their XXXL T-shirts.

But who are we to talk? The Restaurant Dieter, the TRD Spouse, his brother and sister-in-law dropped by the Voodoo Doughnuts too to get a snack before heading to the Portland Rose Gardens.

So we were just going to get a taste. You know, one little indulgence.

But standing in line for 20 minutes scanning the huge menu is an exercise in thwarted desire. So by the time we reached the counter, our order required a box. We had to have a couple of the maple bacon, of course; there were four of us after all. The cake doughnuts coated in frosting and topped with mini M&Ms looked good. The chocolate cake ones with chocolate frosting and Cocoa Puffs (“Triple Chocolate Penetration”) had to be ordered, if only for the conversation value. And who could resist the peach fritter with cream cheese frosting?

Once outside, we ate in a blind fury. Ten minutes later, we surveyed the nearly empty box and canceled the Rose Gardens. We had to get back to the hotel before the sugar buzz became a sugar coma.

Oh, did I mention that the TRD Spouse and his brother were in Portland for a triathlon? And that at the race the next day, the only available food for sale to the public was…Voodoo Doughnuts?

Review: The Yogurt Tap, Decatur, Ga.

When it’s time to go out for something cold in the summer, my spouse and I battle it out. He wants ice cream, and nothing but. It can be cheap soft-serve like Dairy Queen. It can be high-end gelatto.

What it can’t be is frozen yogurt of the kind found at national chains such as Pinkberry and Yoforia, or the local place near our home in Decatur, Ga., The Yogurt Tap. Unless it leaves that slimy feel of buttercream on the roof of his mouth, The Restaurant Dieter’s Spouse is not happy. That tang of yogurt makes him wince.

Sometimes, out of pure pity or love, I win. My spouse leaves the engine on, pulls up close and pushes me out at the curb. He waits while I run in for what I hope will be a healthy, cool, lowfat treat.

Yogurt Tap’s toppings bar

I say hope because that’s all it is. Whether self-serve, as my local place is, or counter-person-assisted, you can pile on the calories from a toppings bar that look like the Candy Land board. Sure, there are fresh blueberries, but just look at all those M&Ms, chocolate chips, granola and hacked up pieces of Snickers bars!

What differentiates The Yogurt Tap from some of the national chains is that there are no brakes. Call it the Old Country Buffet of the healthy yogurt world. You get an enormous bowl, fill it with yogurt yourself, pile on the toppings and pay by the ounce.

Leaving perhaps half the bowl unfilled, I wound up with 8 ounces of yogurt before I’d added a single topping. That’s not so bad, given that a 4 ounce serving is billed as 70 calories with 0 grams fat.

Not even I can leave it there. That yogurt tang does need something, and in this case, it was 1/4 cup of chocolate chips, for 80 calories and 4 grams of fat. And when I’m feeling really deserving, I top it off with just one piece of hacked-up Snickers bar.

Whaddaya want? A saint?

A Weekend of Extremes Visting Family

The Restaurant Dieter was visiting family in the Detroit area this past weekend.

Going home is fraught with diet peril. For starters, there’s the emotional baggage, no matter how much you love your family. And even when you can separate yourself some — I stayed with a friend — you can often fall into the same bad habits.

Food is love in my family. My spouse thinks it’s odd. He tells the story of what happened when my mom once offered him some treat after one of her huge holiday dinners.

“No thanks,” he said, falling into food coma on the couch.

“Why not?” she persisted.

“Boy that was big meal. I’m not hungry,” he replied.

“Why not?” she inquired, pushing the treat into his mouth until he succumbed.

That tale is another reason I often compare us to the couple in “My Fat Greek Wedding.” Food as love figures in their courtship.

By mid-Friday evening, I’d already gotten into the biscotti that my mother and sister bought at a bakery. I couldn’t say no, could I? They did it for me. (Insert the rationalization of your choice here.)  I’m sure I had at least four. By the time I was off to my friend Rich’s house to sleep, that sweet taste lingered and had me salivating for something. Something…more. Actually, anything more.

I stopped at a convenience store to get some snacks. What’s that they say about folks who travel with their own alcohol, for fear there won’t be any where they’re going? I bought chips — baked, of course — plus peanut butter filled pretzels and unsalted almonds.

My friend and I picked at those until the late night dinner he’d arranged arrived: a pie from a Detroit institution called Pizza Papalis. It bills itself as Chicago-style pizza, but it has a Greek surname. The first location was in downtown Detroit’s Greektown neighborhood. The pizza is double crusted, with layers of cheese and fillings.

I had two pieces of the vegetarian. Pizza Papalis’ website doesn’t include nutritional information. Not that I stopped to think and look it up anyway. Two pieces racked up at least 1,000 calories and 80 grams of fat, judging by the nutritional information provided by the helpful folks at Uno Chicago Grill, which also specializes in deep dish.

Then — smack me silly for compounding the error — I went straight to bed. At 4 a.m. I woke to the wicked acid reflux moment I surely deserved. I chugged a Diet Coke and sat up at least an hour.

I resolved to behave the next day. Mom and I had lunch at Ram’s Horn. It draws a crowd Mom’s age — 85 — and has some decent large salads. I ordered a modified Cobb: yes chicken, no cheese, no bacon, fat-free raspberry dressing on the side.

When it arrived, I had a salad dressing epiphany: That fat-free raspberry vinaigrette, ordered many times at many restaurants, just tastes plain awful. A serving may only be 50 calories and no fat, but it’s just not worth it. Especially when water and high fructose corn syrup are the first two ingredients listed. Next time, I’ll spend the calories on a reasonable dressing, or ask for vinegar and oil. (The latter is no guarantee of a satisfactory dressing either, however; I’ve been handed canola oil and cider vinegar.)

For dinner, my sister had a coupon for Red Lobster. The full-color regular and specials menus are a case study in modern menu design. Flavors and fat layered until the fish is mostly obscured, but it’s what the customers seem to want. How about that spicy coconut and citrus shrimp from the specials menu? 1,230 calories, 70 grams fat and 3,490 grams of sodium — more than double what an adult over 51 should consume in a day.

It aims at a wider swath than the best fish restaurant I’ve been to: Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin in New York. I’d only been on Weight Watchers a few months when we went. We had the tasting menu, which was a parade of amazing dishes that highlighted, rather than buried, the fish. It was impossible to figure the points value, but it all tasted so clean and fresh that I didn’t even bother.

Last weekend, in more modest surroundings, I went for shrimp cocktail — always a good bet — and ordered grilled whitefish from the “Lighthouse” fresh catch menu. It was a half-sheet of paper, no color, no illustrations — clearly for the rare ascetic like myself. I requested my meal prepared with no fat; it came out with a sheen that told me: Even if my request was honored, it picked up some fat on the grill. The flavor was excellent — fish, rather than a coating, sauce or fat. With steamed asparagusas a side, I had a pretty good day.

Of course, I did have to have one of those ubiquitous cheddar biscuits, which added 150 calories, 8 grams of fat and 350 of sodium. Sabotage is everywhere, I’m afraid.

But give Red Lobster credit for trying. The Lighthouse menu saved me. And the company’s website has good information on healthy eating and a food calculator so you can plan your meal in advance.

Buttercream Frosting and The City

What kind of person would The Restaurant Dieter be if he lived a life of pious eating all the time? A cranky one.

So the joys of a sweet treat now and then cannot be cast aside. That’s especially true when in New York. This is where the city magazine recently proclaimed toast as…you guessed it, the newest thing since sliced bread.

I make fun of New York’s food obsession here, but the city, one Greenwich Village Bakery and “Sex and the City” launched the cupcake craze. For that I am deeply grateful.

I’ve been on a warpath against most fine restaurants today because cake has fallen from favor as a dessert option. The menu only has one cake usually — something chocolate, flourless, intense, gushy — and then a creme brulee or flan, fruit and pasty or crunch something, ice cream and sorbet, tiramisu and maybe a cheesecake or carrot cake. A wonderful golden layer cake with fresh stawberries and whipped cream or a lovely coconut cake is passe.

So when the eyeglass shop wasn’t open yet, I made a beeline to Upper West Side outpost of The Magnolia Bakery, the Greenwich Village institution where those impossibly thin SATC girls bought their cakes.

At the counter, I spied a caramel dripped cupcake and one topped in snowy coconut. I’m partial to red velvet cupcakes, but have not forgiven Magnolia for messin’ with the classic recipe and substituting white buttercream frosting for the cream cheese icing. I’d eat your shirt if it had cream cheese icing on it.

Just for the hell of it, I asked the counter girl: “Do you have nutritional information on any of your cupcakes?” She resisted the temptation to call Bellevue and have me committed and said no.

As I sidled up to the checkout, another customer was confessing to the register clerk that she tried a brownie sample because she wouldn’t dare eat a cupcake. The box she had was for someone else?

“Oh, it’s only 10 calories,” she told the woman. And then, seeing the look on my face added, with a laugh, “give or take a hundred.”

Well for that nutritional bargain, I figured why not and took a sample myself. Self-delusion is a beautiful thing.

Coconut cupcake and brownie sample

So what was the damage? Finding good information about cupcakes is tough online. A lot of websites will rely on the nutritional labels on a pre-packaged food, such as a Hostess cupcake. But that too is a wonderful exercise in self-deception, according to Dr. Charles Stuart Platkin, who writes as The Diet Detective. According to National Public Radio, Platkin recently determined that my Magnolia treat came in at about 389 calories and nearly 19 grams of fat. Another popular local chain has cupcakes with 780 calories and 36 grams of fat. But a Hostess cupcake is a more modest 181 calories and 6 grams of fat.

And that brownie sample? Weight Watchers teaches that an item the size of your thumb is about 1 ounce.

Using Platkin’s estimates and my Weight Watchers Points E-tools, I figure that cupcake cost me 7 daily points out of my 38 daily allotment. And that supposed 10 calorie brownie sample was more like 100 calories. (The sales clerk was right after all!)

I could have mitigated the damage. Today’s cupcakes have snowy peaks of frosting that make Everest look small, compared to that perfectly acceptable smear mom used. If a teaspoon of buttercream frosting is about 44 calories and 1 gram of fat, I could have easily scraped a couple of tablespoons off and still enjoyed it.

But I didn’t. I ate the cupcake in four bites, my nose earning a requisite dollop of frosting.

So lunch is another turkey sandwich for me.

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